This Halloween, Vanderbilt UP is celebrating the holiday with eerie excerpts from several of our books. We hope you enjoy this summoning of spirits, wailing of wind, and explication of a not-quite-murder ballad.
First, we have an excerpt from Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss. In this passage, Maraniss describes the atmosphere on Vanderbilt’s campus in the spring of 1967, when a student-run speaker series, the Impact Symposium, brought Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, and Strom Thurmond to speak on campus during a two-day period.
As Maraniss described the event in a Vanderbilt Magazine piece marking the fiftieth anniversary of the program in 2017, the speakers’ presence and speeches shook up the campus: “Four electric figures dropped in the middle of what remained a relatively sleepy and nonpolitical campus, confronting students with disparate views on the most polarizing issues of the 1960s: war, peace, poverty, racism, drugs, social justice, freedom of speech, and the role of authority.”
One of the Impact speakers even wrapped up the first day of the symposium with a lengthy séance in a student dorm:
As King left campus and returned to the airport, the bearded man who had made his triumphant entrance to Nashville that morning capped off the eventful day in signature style. Repeatedly chanting “Allah” and jingling small cymbals, Ginsberg led a group of one hundred students in a three-hour séance in the basement of the Branscomb Quadrangle dormitory in which he “extolled the virtues of LSD, the fantasy of masturbation and the complete awareness achieved during sexual intercourse,” according to a [Vanderbilt] Hustler account of the bizarre session. Impact ’67 was only a few hours old and already it had stirred the campus like never before.
Our second excerpt comes from Bobby Braddock: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row by renowned country music songwriter Bobby Braddock. Here, he reflects on the unusual qualities of his first marriage, which led to Braddock writing hit country music songs via a surprising conduit:
The other strange aspect of our relationship was the Ouija board, which I knew very little about until Sue told me of the experiences she had had with one when she was a child. It was a large wooden board with the entire alphabet and numbers zero to nine printed across it, along with the words “YES,” “NO,” and “GOODBYE” at the top. The process required two participants placing their fingers on a planchette that had a little window in the middle, from which one could see the letters the piece stopped on as it moved rapidly across the slate, answering the questions being asked of whatever spirit happened to be present at the time. The objective was to receive spiritualistic or telepathic messages. It may have appeared to an onlooker that the movable indicator was being manipulated by one of us, but I knew I wasn’t moving it, and I didn’t think Sue was. Sometimes the answers would be information Sue couldn’t possibly have known, and I came to believe that we were actually communicating with the spirits of the departed. The question is, how reliable is a spirit who has nothing better to do than hang out playing late-night board games?
“Who do we have here tonight?” I asked.
“Woogie,” the board spelled out, referring to the nickname for “Ouija.”
“Where can I get a good song idea?”
“Turn on the TV and watch The Red Skelton Show.”
I did as I was instructed, and within two or three minutes, someone on the show said a line that included the phrase “while you’re dancing.” I grabbed “Woogie” and shoved it into Sue’s lap, and asked, “Should I write a song called ‘While You’re Dancing?’” As we placed our fingers on the planchette, it zipped to the upper left-hand corner of the board and landed on “YES.” If I had a title I believed in, the rest of the song always seemed to fall into place. I ran to my electric piano, and within a half hour I had put together what would become, about a year later, my first song in the country charts, “While You’re Dancing.”
The Long Black Veil, Lefty Frizzell Produced by Don Law Written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin Columbia 41384 • 1959 • #6 country
Songwriter Danny Dill drew inspiration from a quartet of unconnected sources: an unresolved New Jersey murder; a gospel song titled “God Walks These Hills with Me”; the story of a woman who for years visited the grave of Rudolph Valentino; and the old ballads of folk-revival singer Burl Ives. When Marijohn Wilkins set Dill’s lyrics to an elegiac melody, the result was exactly what they’d been looking for—“an instant folksong.” It’s been subjected to countless versions since Lefty Frizzell introduced the song in 1959.
Because it begins by telling us that, “ten years ago . . . someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light,” the song sometimes gets labeled a murder ballad, but it’s a murder ballad without a murder—the only death we witness is the narrator’s execution for a crime he didn’t commit. “The Long Black Veil” can more accurately be described as a ghost story, but even that doesn’t speak to the song’s enduring appeal—the shock that comes with learning that the narrator is singing beyond the grave is only good the first time through, after all. More than anything, “The Long Black Veil,” in which a man can’t clear his name because to do so would require admitting that he’d been “in the arms of [his] best friend’s wife,” is a gothic cheating song—where love and guilt stretch beyond the grave and mourning never ceases. Over a haunting, barren arrangement, Frizzell forgoes his trademark melisma, and the effect is as eerie as the final image: “Sometimes at night, when the cold wind moans / In a long black veil, she cries o’er my bones.”