Song sounds that evoke hell/the devil - origins?
May 12, 2024 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I was watching the Decemberists play Oh No last night and was thinking about songs with (usually) a repetitive brass line and downbeat vocals that make us think of hell or the devil - the only other two examples I can find right now are Hell by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the robot devil song from Futurama, but it’s instantly recognizable. Where did this theme originate, or is there anything I can search on to learn more about it? Thanks!
posted by ftm to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Devil's Cabaret (1930) is a pretty early example of the trope. Here's the main musical number: "Come Hot It Up With Me".

It likely originated as a satirical take on the (racist) condemnation of jazz as "The Devil's Music" (and a YouTube link for that documentary).
posted by jedicus at 3:29 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]

Red Right Hand - Nick Cave - does that for me.
posted by Silvery Fish at 3:52 PM on May 12 [8 favorites]

Hell's Bells (1929) has arrangements like this of independently famous classical music that don't ordinarily have the same vibe. My recollection is this and other Silly Symphony cartoons from Walt Disney were still being shown in the 70s, I think on TBS but maybe other regional kids' shows that included old cartoons.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:02 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Maybe from blues in a minor key, like St. James Infirmary
posted by credulous at 9:37 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Maybe from blues in a minor key, like St. James Infirmary

While not explicitly devilish, TV Tropes lists some Fleischer Studios shorts as possible trope codifiers for Creepy Jazz Music, including three Cab Calloway performances, notably St James Infirmary in 1933’s Snow-White.
posted by zamboni at 10:52 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Moris Tepper's Old Tin Can for another example of the genre.
posted by verstegan at 2:28 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

Oh No is, so far, one of my favorites from the new album, so I was tickled to see this question. Today Spotify served up another song that fits this template:

Let's Have a Satanic Orgy by Twin Temple
posted by miratime at 6:34 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

My uninformed guess is that the origins are in the connections between folk music (which is chock-full of devils) and jazz/blues music. I'm not hitting on the right search terms to produce what I want to find, other than this:
Library of Congress Folklife: Devil Songs
posted by wintersweet at 6:36 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Futuro by Cafe Tacuba (the title track to Diablero) definitely has delightfully demonic vibes.
posted by cnidaria at 9:29 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

Like wintersweet said, this is a pretty common topic in folk songs/folk tales in prior centuries, so it's not surprising it would continue into 20th century pop culture. I think they sound creepy because the symbolism of the Devil is really, really strong culturally; I wasn't even raised Christian and it still usually works on me! I mean, it's uncanny.

The Lyke-Wake Dirge is from the 14th century and the oldest one that's arguably a precursur of this genre that I'm aware of. It's technically kinda churchy but then also has this very spooky underworld journey: A windy moor, the Bridge of Dread (whatever that is) Purgatory fire, which will will burn you if you weren't decent in life.

Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down is a standard (Willie Nelson and Robert Plant have recorded it) but my favorite version is this relatively modern one from Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns out of New Orleans.

This is more of a country/folk number and all the way over into "downright creepy" territory, but The Devil Had a Hold of Me by Gillian Welch is also on this topic.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 11:54 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

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