Szomorú Vasárnap

The ubiquity of YouTube is a wonderful thing. For every one four million view video on the site there’s another forty thousand videos with a hundred views each. This, as Alex Juhasz [1]calls it, “niche-tube” exists below the radar of YouTube’s popularity and is often a treasure trove of weird and specific videos that only appeal to small subset of people. Some of it is prime research material.

Take “Gloomy Sunday” for example. The so called “Hungarian Suicide Song”, which has many urban legends around it, was mostly popularized in English by Billie Holiday. Originally written by Rezso Seress (lyrics), it was promptly rewritten to be less depressing by poet László Jávor (lyrics). It was that version that was later translated into English by Sam L. Lewis (lyrics) and Desmond Carter (lyrics). Carter’s version, performed by Paul Robeson (who has his own interesting history), was the more accurate translation but it proved to be the less successful one. After a bunch of performers, Lewis’ version was eventually recorded by Billie Holiday with a new third stanza that tries to take even more weight off the original meaning of the song by implying that it was a dream. It was this version of the song that persisted, eventually being covered by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bjork, Sarah McLaughlin, Sinéad O’Connor and others. It is this version, three iterations from the original, that is mostly known as “Gloomy Sunday.”

Now this is all well and interesting written out, but a quick YouTube search will reveal all this history in all its aural glory. YouTube is a great cultural library for this media and while copyright issues will always plague it, at this point I doubt they will ever stop it. How can you go back with all this culture a click away? Here’s an audio/video history of the previous paragraph:

An early recording of Jávor’s version from 1935.
The first English version performed by Paul Robeson.
Hal Kemp and His Orchestra singing the original Lewis version of the song (without the third stanza).
Billie Holiday’s version, with the extra stanza.
Elvis Costello’s version from 1981.

And lastly:

The only known recording of Seress performing his own song.

See also: in Russian; in Polish; in French; an Argentine version; Venetian Snares‘ reinterpretation, sampling Billie Holiday’s version..

  1. Henry Jenkins: “Learning From YouTube: An Interview with Alex Juhasz” part one, part two.
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