Dead men tell no tales, but they’ve been known to sing ’em. So if you’re looking to assemble a Halloween playlist, don’t settle for the obvious likes of “Monster Mash.”
Instead, greet the Day of the Dead with songs sung from beyond the grave – by dead first-person narrators, singing their stories as ghosts.
1. The Band, “Long Black Veil” (1968) – Arguably the greatest of songs like this, “Long Black Veil” features a protagonist hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. But he martyrs himself to protect his lover’s secret. “Long Black Veil” has been covered by Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Joan Baez and many more over the years, but maybe the best version is by The Band – with the late Rick Danko finding its ghostly core. “Nobody knows, nobody sees / Nobody knows, but me.”
2. Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell, “Pretty Little One” (2014) – This starts out as a pretty standard Appalachian murder ballad, a one-sided courtship gone fatally bad. But there’s a twist toward the end, when the song’s first-person narrator suddenly realizes he’s brought a knife to a gun fight.
3. Ry Cooder, “The Girls From Texas” (1980) – Along similar lines, “The Girls From Texas” plays out like this: Playboy meets and marries Girl From Texas, Playboy runs around with another Girl From Texas – who administers a little frontier justice, West of the Pecos-style, and pretty much walks scott-free. “She was guilty, but I was dead / Now what you think that ol’ judge said? / ‘Ah, that’s just the way the girls are down in Texas – case dismissed!’” There’s also a version with Texas accordion master Flaco Jimenez delivering the verdict above in Spanish.
4. Bill Morrissey, “Letter From Heaven” (1993) – In which the first-person narrator reports on how things are up in the heavenly afterlife, where Abraham Lincoln is happy because “he finally got to see the end of the play.” Morrissey’s protagonist buys Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson a beer, goes steady with country siren Patsy Cline and declares, “It’s a great life when you’re dead.” Morrissey died in 2011, so maybe this is exactly how things are going up there.
5. Pet Shop Boys, “Hell” (2012) – And on the other side, the underworld sketched out by the English Eurodisco duo Pet Shop Boys is decidedly less pleasant. The likes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Josef Stalin and “that Old bore Lenin” are all hanging around: “Evil is a bore with a big idea.”
6. They Might Be Giants, “Dead” (1990) – More than a little surreal, They Might Be Giants’ “Dead” is sung by a late protagonist imagining he’s been reincarnated as a bag of groceries mistakenly taken off the shelf before the sell-by date. Regrets prevail: “Now it’s over, I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want.”
7. Marty Robbins, “El Paso” (1959) – Spurred by his love for a beautiful woman named Felina, our hero follows his heart into gunplay. Multiple deaths ensue, including his own when he flees and is driven to return. But his ghostly memory of their one and only kiss is sweet: “Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for / One little kiss and Felina, goodbye…”
8. Neil Young, “Powderfinger” (1979) – The doomed 22-year-old narrator of “Powderfinger” tries to make the best of a bad situation when a gunboat turns up and opens fire. He doesn’t survive (“Then I saw black, and my face splashed in the sky”), concluding the song with the plaintive plea, “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her.”
9. John Hiatt, “Wood Chipper” (2012) – In a scenario worthy of a Coen Brothers tragicomic farce, Hiatt’s hapless first-person narrator winds up as collateral damage to a love triangle gone way, way bad: “One bullet to the head / Before I hit the ground I was dead.” He seems more bemused than angry about it.
10. Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights” (1978) – Recorded when Bush was but a teenager, she sings in character as a ghost returning from the great beyond to visit her lover: “Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely / On the other side from you.”
11. Bee Gees, “I Started a Joke” (1968) – There’s a lot of laughter going on in this one, but the singer doesn’t find it very funny: “I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes / And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said / ’Till I finally died which started the whole world living / Oh if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.”
12. Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party” (1985) – It’s not clear how the singer met his end, as lightning strikes and being “hit by something” are both mentioned. However it happened, he’s “all dressed up with nowhere to go” for a dead man’s party where protocol is to “leave your body and soul at the door.”