The 13 Greatest Ghost Songs of All Time
It’s Halloween, which is the best holiday out of all the holidays that don’t involve presents. On Halloween, everyone pretends to be afraid of ghosts, which are generally thought to be the spirits of dead people who, for some reason or another, are caught in between worlds.
I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. It’s probably all the Scooby Doo episodes I watched as a kid; ghosts were never real, but rather just Old Mr. Thompson trying to scare those interlopers away from his property (and he would have gotten away from it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids).
I do believe in keeping alive the memory of loved ones who’ve passed away. But the idea that my grandfather is somehow hovering above the ceiling while I watch reruns of Law & Order: Criminal Intent makes me very sad for the both of us.
Be they spooky tales of ghostly dread or encomiums to the Holy Spirit, the following list presents a baker’s dozen of the best ghost songs ever recorded. You’ll notice that many of these songs sound spooky, eerie and are played in a minor key. Whether or not you believe in their existence, these songs all succeed in conjuring up the otherworldly.
This is the ninth song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, that remarkable indie-rock album recently voted the Best Album on eMusic. Singer Jeff Mangum started to write this song about a ghost that was living in the bathroom of his house. But, Mangum told me, as the album progressed and began to take a greater focus on the Holocaust, “the song became more of a reference to Anne Frank.” It’s an oblique reference, peppered with flowery, surreal imagery, but that’s the dude’s style. In the context of the album, when Mangum sings “I know that she will live forever, she won’t ever die” it’s truly a cathartic release — made all the more so by Scott Spillane’s Eastern European horn arrangements, Julian Koster’s singing saw and Mangum’s own fuzzed-up guitar.
The general lore around ghosts is that they are uneasy spirits — suicides, the cuckolded and the murdered all become ghosts when they die. Surely Albert Ayler is himself a ghost, then? The great free jazz tenor saxophone player was found floating face down in New York’s East River in late 1970. No one knows the story of his death, though he presumably killed himself. In his lifetime, he forged a strangely transcendent sound that mixed both visceral and spiritual sounds to stunning effect. This song, for instance, begins with a nursery rhyme-ish melody before evolving into a mournful — and occasionally crazed — dirge. It finally reels back in on itself, and Ayler once again repeats that same opening melodic motif. Whew!
The Gun Club’s lead singer/ songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce combined a slashing brand of punk-blues with noir-tinged poetry. And — to speak in the manner of a high school English lit student — in this song we see the image of the ghost used as a metaphor for a love interest. It’s a love/hate ode to a femme fatale: “You thought winning as a woman meant failing as a friend/ It is not an art statement to drown a few passionate men.” Far from mere rock-and-roll misogyny, the song is an apex of the kind of literate punk at which LA acts excelled (see also X, Flesh Eaters and the Germs).
Of all the ways that ghosts have invaded our consciousness in popular culture, those little fellows who chase you in Pac-Man must surely be near the top. Capcom’s Ghosts N ‘Goblins for Nintendo was true nerd nirvana when it came to ghost-centric video games; it was so difficult that you had to beat the thing twice in order to really win. The Advantage is the most renowned and celebrated of a surprisingly vibrant scene of video game bands. The group’s rendition fleshes the eight-bit melody into a full band version that’s strangely beguiling — and kind of rockin’.
Professor Alex Bradford is best remembered today as an influence on early rock and soul artists. Little Richard copped his flamboyant style and falsetto delivery, while Ray Charles patterned his backup singers on Bradford’s group the Bradford Specials. But Bradford also cut a number of huge gospel songs, arranged the back-up music for Mahalia Jackson and helped to create the “mass choir” sound that’s so popular today. His dramatic rendition of the spiritual number “Holy Ghost” is short but sweet. From the dramatic swoops of the vocals to the hard driving power of the backing band, it’s easy to see where songs like this greatly influenced the formation of rock & roll.
If you’ve ever sat in the back of church having impure thoughts about another parishioner — and who hasn’t? — there’s a good chance you’ll be able to relate to this song. It mixes the idea of the Holy Ghost infiltrating someone with the love of God with that other kind of love — the earthly, “Song of Solomon” kind. The Bar-Kays formed in Memphis, TN in 1966, where they were part of the Stax scene. And though most of the band members perished along with Otis Redding in a plane crash in late 1967, the group soldiered on. Originally recorded for Stax around ’74 but unreleased until four years later, this mammoth jam became a big hit, and in 1987 it was sampled by M/A/R/R/S on their smash “Pump Up the Volume.”
You remember that scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when he gets a ride from trucker Large Marge, only to learn that she was actually a phantasm, and that she’d died on the highway in a dreadful wreck years earlier? That’s the basic story behind this classic country trucker song, written by Woodrow Wilson “Red” Sovine and performed here by Ferlin Husky. To give the story added emotional drama, it turns out that the ghost in question had died after swerving to avoid a collision with a school bus full of kids. Awwwww. The tune was later adapted by Tom Waits, but Husky’s schmaltzy-yet-straightforward rendition is charmingly anachronistic and covered in Nashville sheen. Just as it should be.
And now for something completely different — a pretty little jazz ditty from the ’20s later recorded by Fletcher Henderson and a dozen others. It’s funny that the song addresses the ghost of a musical form that was then still in a nascent state, but then again, the song, co-written in 1924 by Sidney Bechet and Tim Brymn, arrived at a time when any song with the word “blues” in the title was likely to be a hit. For all we know, the name could have been decided by the publisher or record scout. Kudos to whoever came up with it, as there’s something evocative about the idea of the blues having its own ghost. Come to think of it, that would be one sad, sorry ghost.
Robyn Hitchcock’s 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains has a stripped-down, ethereal vibe throughout. All the songs might as well be ghost songs, especially “Bones in the Ground.” The record alternates between relatively upbeat tunes and mournful ballads, making it a classic of manic-depressive outsider folk. This song is about the ghosts of old trains that used to run through the city. Hitchcock, whose prior solo record was called Groovy Decay, obsesses about decomposing things. “Trams” might be the loveliest song on this very spooky record; it’s also the second-best song about a ghost train ever recorded.
Images of a supernatural nature permeate garage rock. From the Cramps and Alex Chilton to Panther Burns and Haunted George (not to mention the Misfits), zombies and vampires and ghosts are to garage rock what sex and drugs are to classic rock. Blacktop was the short-lived swamp-rock project from the mid ’90s by unheralded genius singer/guitarist Mick Collins of the Gories and Dirtbombs. This instrumental number is evocative and rocking and tremendous and it must be about bad-ass ghosts who are even cooler now that they’re dead.
Of course, this song is first and foremost about the Marvel comic book character of the same name. But it sounds so damn spooky, and is such a terrific song, that it had to make the list. There’s always been something about the marriage between the future and the past in Suicide’s music: that steam-powered drum machine and those Elvis-baiting vocals choogled by the instrument of the future, the synthesizer/organ. Dripping in reverb, Suicide’s music would make the ideal soundtrack to a thriller about ghosts. Certainly it would have made a better soundtrack for Ghost than the actual thing.
In Irish mythology, a banshee is a female spirit from the beyond, and she is not an omen of good tidings. It’s said that she makes a wailing, warbled yell — which is echoed in this 1925 composition by the American Henry Cowell. This eerie piece, among his most important early works, calls for the piano player to pluck and scrape at the piano’s actual strings. This was understandably a great leap forward, and it’s surprising that the result is as subtle as it is.
We end on a familiar note with “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” Stan Jones ‘infamous apocalyptic cowboy ghost song from 1948. This isn’t the Wayne Henderson, the jazz trombone player, but rather the Virginia-based guitar-maker to the stars, a noted and nimble picker in his own right. As this is an instrumental version of the song (one of many) you can’t hear the words. The tune depicts a cowboy who looks to the skies to see a herd of demonic cattle chased by the ghosts of deceased cowboys. I chose a wordless version partly because the song holds such a cheesy and familiar place in popular culture — if the tune is heard without words we might hear it anew. It’s the same thing with ghosts — strip the Scooby Doo associations away and they can be pretty much anything you want — from Anne Frank to a bad girlfriend, a good samaritan to a creepy cowboy in the sky.