In Search of a Halloween Song

February 12th, 2013 posted by Family Corner Staff

Somewhere in our overfilled attic, perhaps in a box beneath the Christmas wreath or ice cream machine, is a rusting Halloween noisemaker I had as a child in the ’70s. Shaped like Mr. Peanut, painted orange and bearing the icy likeness of a sinewy, green-faced witch, the hand-sized toy sports a handle beneath it the size of a pen cap. When you hold the handle and twirl, the peanut spins round like manic hands on a clock, eking out a noise annoying enough for nails down a chalkboard to sound like Tchaikovsky. The toy was Halloween to me, one screeching soliloquy in an eerie play encompassing the Halloween carnival and bat-infested house haunting our class bulletin board. Trick-or-treating was only the final act in a month-long performance. The Halloween songs we learned in music class, the true pulse of the season, unified the October play into a masterpiece. Our Halloween songs were the stuff of American lore, rare remnants of an oral tradition all but vanished in an increasing technological world even twenty-five years ago. We learned the lyrics as children pick up “Happy Birthday to You,” watching others belt them out with enthusiasm if not melodious talent. “There was an old lady all skin and bones, Ooo ooo oooo” began one song. “Halloween is coming, ah ha ha” began another. The tunes still moan through my mind but most of their words escape me, forgotten over the ensuing years of proms and college, marriage, career and just growing up. Another song told of a witch spotted through a window with “cornstalks flying from her hair” whom I imagined was the withered woman sneering at me from the noisemaker but I no longer remember the notes, leaving the tuneless scrap of a phrase powerless to move anyone to fear. The heavy-cadence songs, frightfully thrilling to a wide-eyed child, lie buried by the silt of time and like a hapless Howard Carter laborer, I find myself without a pickax. As much as I still relish Halloween, I doubt I would mourn the songs’ loss so much had I not become a mother. No grownup wants to sing them. The Halloween parties I’ve attended as an adult are little more than excuses to guzzle beer while disguised as Gumby. Bobbing for apples, hayrides and ghost stories remain locked in the kids’ domain. At grown-up parties, refilling peanut bowls garners more enthusiasm than leading the crowd in a round of “There was an old lady all skin and bones.” But in a room of little pumpkin heads, the old Halloween songs might well rival a Teletubby personal appearance. I began planning a Halloween party for my toddler last week, reasoning one Trick-or-Treating prerequisite is a vocabulary actually including the words “Trick-or-Treat.” Since we’re still working on “bye-bye,” a party seemed like the better alternative with Gummy worm ice cubes, spider brownies and of course the old Halloween songs. Never mind that the kids won’t be able to sing all the words for another five years. Music moves everyone, even the preverbal. A self-proclaimed bastion of tradition, I began scouring the Web for the Halloween lyrics, longing to pass on those gems from my childhood to a new generation. Who knew the songs found online would be lusterless cubic zirconium? I should have been suspicious when the Web sites boasted collections of Halloween carols. I mean, carols are supposed to be joyous hymn-like ditties saturating the malls every December, right? Unfortunately this point is not lost on the carolists who slap gooey lyrics into Christmas classics and call them Halloween songs like, oh, “Humphrey the Blue-Nosed Pumpkin” who has a “very obvious nose” or “Ghosties We Have Heard on High.” No Christmas carol, religious or not, is left undefiled. Oh sure, the happy little pumpkin carols bear some inevitable charm throwing spooky spins on Christmas favorites. Kids probably roar with convulsive belly laughs at their silliness. Yet the masquerading songs betray the essence of Halloween, the one night a year we give flight to our dark primitive urges to be scared right down to our innermost core. Fear helped our ancestors survive in their harsh primeval world but as our own cloistered lives of convenience lull us into a monotonous stupor, we not only long to be frightened once in a while, we require it. Halloween carols rob us of that rare chance, no matter how cute they are. In the absence of true Halloween ballads, my other options are songs receiving actual airplay like the favorite “Monster Mash.” No one wants to hear the Mash continuously, though, so DJs pass off others as Halloween tunes. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Werewolves of London” may well approach the Mash as reasonable Halloween themes but I can’t hear “Abracadabra” without flipping up my shirt collar or “Witchy Woman” without feathering my hair and settling in for an evening of Pong (or worse, picturing Elaine butcher the tune on Seinfeld.). These songs are scary all right, resurrecting images of tube tops, zipper-flap jeans, Panama Jack and tinted monogrammed glasses but not otherworldly spirits that incite real if momentary fear. Too defined by the eras that bred them, too common on Oldies stations to warrant more than lukewarm receptions, the Halloween songs on the radio, like the carols, vie to fill a musical void they cannot. Call me a Halloween purist or overzealous mother and you may be right on both counts. Still, as burning leaves spice the dark, crisp nights approaching Halloween, the sinewy witch, the hot caramel apples, the broken shutters dangling from the bulletin board’s haunted house rejoin in my mind the old Halloween songs I long to reclaim. Yet before my Web search bitterly ends, before I give up in complete frustration, a song on one Halloween Web page emerges from the maddening sea of imposters: There was an old lady all skin and bones, Oooo, oooo, oooo. She lived down by the old graveyard, Oooo, oooo, oooo. One night she went to take a walk, Oooo, oooo, oooo. She walked down by the old graveyard, Oooo, oooo, oooo. She found some bones across a grave, Oooo, oooo, oooo. She went to the closet to get a broom, Oooo, oooo, oooo. She opened up the creaking door and BOO! Now, a generation since I first heard the song, the lyrics look about as awe-inspiring as a grocery list. Reflecting an oral tradition heritage, they typify Halloween only through the spoken word, each syllable drawn out slowly like pulled taffy, each “Oooo, oooo, oooo” chanted deceptively soothingly before culminating with the startling and perhaps inevitable “BOO!” At last, with “There was an old lady all skin and bones”, the spectral stage is set for Halloween to arrive at our home in a gossamer shroud of harmless fear both dreaded and embraced. The other old songs, elusive still, may never meet this one in my son’s memories but perhaps the taste of crackling leaves in the October air will. And maybe, just maybe, “There was an old lady all skin and bones” will flavor his Halloweens with the same uneasy excitement savored in my own childhood when proms lay a decade away, summers seemed to last forever and I knew exactly which box held my creepy orange noisemaker.

Family Corner Staff (674 Posts)

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Cindy Rowe
Cindy Rowe (7 Posts)

Cindy Rowe is the owner/editor of Crazylou Creations blog. On the blog, you will find a little bit of crazy, and a whole lot of fun! As a FT working mother, she still finds time to create crafts, play around in the kitchen, plan parties and exercise. You'll find all of this and more on her blog!

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