Origins: "The" legend about "Gloomy Sunday" is a sort of meta-legend that encompasses the following claims:
- The song "Gloomy Sunday" was connected to many suicides in Hungary.
- The song "Gloomy Sunday" was banned in Hungary because of its connection to many suicides.
- The song "Gloomy Sunday" was banned in America because of its connection to many suicides.
- The composer wrote the song for a former girlfriend, who committed suicide shortly after the song's release.
- The composer himself committed suicide.
"Gloomy Sunday" was written in 1933 by two Hungarians: Rezso Seress (music) and Laszlo Javor (lyrics). The song supposedly drew little (adverse) attention until 1936, when it began to be connected with a rash of suicides in Hungary and was allegedly banned there. American musicians and singers soon jumped at the chance to record instrumental and translated versions of the "Hungarian suicide song," and by the end of 1936 several recordings were available to American audiences. (The Billie Holiday version, recorded several years later, was probably the most popular English-language version of "Gloomy Sunday.")
The English lyrics (which reportedly don't do justice to the original Hungarian) go something like this:
Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless.
Little white flowers will never awaken you,
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you.
Angels have no thought of ever returning you.
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
Gloomy is Sunday; with shadows I spend it all.
My heart and I have decided to end it all.
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know.
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you.
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you.
- Up to seventeen suicides were purportedly linked in some way to the song "Gloomy Sunday" in Hungary before the song was (allegedly) banned. These "links" included people who reportedly killed themselves after listening to the song (either from a recording or performed by a band), or who were said to have been found dead with references to "Gloomy Sunday" (and/or its lyrics) in their suicide notes, with "Gloomy Sunday" sheet music in their hands, or with "Gloomy Sunday" playing on gramophones. I don't know how any of these claims could be verified short of paging through old Hungarian newspapers; even then, it would be difficult at this late date to separate exaggerated and fabricated reports from true ones. I suspect that this portion of the legend is trivially true, a combination of Hungary's historically high suicide rate and the assumption of a causal — rather than a coincidental — relationship between the song and suicides that caused rumors and media reports to be greatly exaggerated. Hungary has had the highest suicide rate of any country for many years (as high as 45.9 per 100,000 people in 1984), so a few dozen suicides there over a year's time certainly wouldn't have been unusual, even in 1936. Nor is it at all uncommon for suicides to work something from popular songs or books or films into their deaths. Only when one particular song was coincidentally linked to a sufficient number of suicides to draw attention to all the suicides in which it played a part did people start to claim that it was somehow the cause of these deaths.
- Many claims are made about the reaction to "Gloomy Sunday" by Hungarian authorities, from "discouraging" public performance of the song to an outright ban on it. I have found no reliable information about when, where, or by whom this song might have been banned in one form or another. My guess, based on similar legends (such as the claim that Donald Duck was banned in insert Scandinavian country of choice), would be that some Hungarian municipalities may have instituted some types of (possibly voluntary) restrictions on the song, but that there was no nation-wide ban on "Gloomy Sunday."
- The claims about American reaction to the song are even wilder. Some sources claim that no "Gloomy Sunday"-inspired suicides were reported in the USA at all, while others attribute cases of suicide (up to "200 worldwide") in both the USA and Britain to the English-language version of "Gloomy Sunday" (including "young jazz fans" who became depressed after hearing Billie Holiday's version of the song). Likewise, while some sources say that there were no restrictions whatsoever placed on the song in the USA, others claim that it was "banned from the airwaves." (Sometimes the ban is said to have been directed at a particular version of the song, such as Billie Holiday's recording of it.) Some sources even claim that a sort of "compromise" ban was enacted as many radio stations played only the instrumental version of the song.
- The "girlfriend who inspired the song committed suicide" claims sounds like an embellishment of the basic legend, as I only found one source that mentioned it. It claimed that Javor "wrote the song for a former girlfriend," and that shortly after its release she committed suicide and left behind a note reading simply "Gloomy Sunday."
- Rezso Seress did indeed commit suicide, jumping from a Budapest building in 1968. This portion of the legend also appears to have been embellished, with some sources claiming that he was depressed because he'd never been able to produce another hit after "Gloomy Sunday."
Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker. Rumor! New York: Penguin Books, 1984. ISBN 0-14-007036-2 (p. 15-16).