Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox
Biggest Influence on My Music – The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.
– Leonard Cohen (Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994)
Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: Over the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a number of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Cohencentric feature that began collecting these tunes for the edification and entertainment of viewers on April 4, 2009. All posts in the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at The Original Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page.
Gloomy Sunday & Dress Rehearsal Rag: Legendary Suicide-Inducing Songs
You know there’s a song in, I think it was in Czechoslovakia, called “Gloomy Sunday” that was forbidden to play because every time it would play people would leap out of windows and off of roofs. It was a tragic song. And I read in the Athens News the other day that the composer of it, who only really wrote that one song, he died recently, jumped out of a window himself. I have one of those songs that I have banned for myself. I sing it only on extremely joyous occasions when I know that the landscape can support the despair that I am about to project into it. It’s called the “Dress Rehearsal Rag.”
That introduction and the 1968 recording of “Dress Rehearsal Rag” can be heard in this video from messalina79:
Wikipedia’s description of “Gloomy Sunday” is a tad more prosaic but nonetheless enlightening:
“Gloomy Sunday” is a song composed by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress in 1933 to a Hungarian poem written by László Jávor (original Hungarian title of both song and poem “Szomorú vasárnap” in which the singer reflects on the horrors of modern culture.
Though recorded and performed by many singers, “Gloomy Sunday” is closely associated with Billie Holiday, who scored a hit version of the song in 1941. Owing to unsubstantiated urban legends about its inspiring hundreds of suicides, “Gloomy Sunday” was dubbed the “Hungarian suicide song” in the United States. Seress did commit suicide in 1968, but most other rumors of the song being banned from radio, or sparking suicides, are unsubstantiated, and were partly propagated as a deliberate marketing campaign. Possibly due to the context of the Second World War, Billie Holiday’s version was, however, banned by the BBC.
The same Wikipedia article also provides a literal translation of the lyrics in English:
Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread…
This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There’ll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There’ll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don’t be afraid of my eyes, I’m blessing you even in my death…
The last Sunday
Because of the song’s background and the urban legends attached to it, musical authenticity has been trumped by ghoulish sensationalism in most YouTube videos. I’ve tried to select iterations, for example, that lack faux warnings, typically written in blood-mimicking fonts, that the song is “A KILLER.”
According to the less gruesome sites, actual recordings of Rezső Seress himself playing Gloomy Sunday were rare and, in any case, those recordings are said to be lost except for 30 seconds of audio.
As far as I can determine, the consensus among language-adept musicians is that the less popular version sung by Paul Robeson is the English rendition closest to the original Hungarian work. Both versions are available below.
Billie Holiday – Gloomy Sunday
Paul Robeson – Gloomy Sunday
Credit Due Department: Photo of Rezso Seress – Public Domain via Wikipedia
Note: Originally posted April 7, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric