Listen to Lavender Coffin on Spotify right here!
Trick or Treat! It’s the blues!
Thought I’d forgotten about the mixtapes, hey? I nearly had – Lavender Coffin marks fifteen entries in this series since the start of quarantine, which is completely wild if I really give myself time to think about it. That’s fifteen+ hours, some of which are Hallowe’en-y like this one! I really just do these because I’m a dork and love to hear new music. I’m proud of my little project.
Some highlights: there’s been a hallucinatory bus ride, a suburban home filled to the brim with rain, a haunted beach and a lovesick camp for psychic teens. Death Drive Radio gets around.
If teenage me could see me now, they’d think I am very cool. (They’d be wrong.)
The Long Hallowe’en calls for special entries into the catalogue: they have to be spooky and creepy, for sure, but I outgrew the idea of doing One Big Playlist for Hallowe’en ages ago. I like to challenge myself a bit more nowadays.
The concept was first inspired by Over the Garden Wall, which has an incredible soundtrack to match its perfect story. I was there, listening to C.W. Stoneking and Janet Klein do their thing, and thought: “I need to do a mixtape of spooky, haunted blues and creepy Folk tunes. THAT is what the Long Hallowe’en is missing.” So I did, I scoured the internet for the wildest, kitschiest folk music I could find. No ghost-song was too silly, no murder ballad too packed with singing-saws. No long-lost love too dead and buried, then unburied, then hastily buried again. It was a real prop warehouse of a thing.
And I worked in a prop warehouse for a bit, so let me tell you: it was ridiculous. One day I had to help load a half-dozen skeletons and a headstone into a red Ferrari convertible – but that’s a story for another time.
I think I called it Haunted Blues. It was roughly two very-messy hours of modern retellings of the blues itself, Flapper cosplay, and play-acted Murder Ballads (but not Murder Ballads itself, another time). I thought it had a lot going for it. But unlike the Cramps-heavy KING RAT or telecaster dimension of OUIJA Surf Board – which explored Hallowe’en from the deliberate kitsch of Psychobilly and Tiki bars – something felt off about Haunted Blues. It felt empty and put together from parts, and not in the fun creepy way. It was missing a heart.
I take my little playlist hobby seriously, and this one wasn’t ready. I stepped away from it, then life took over, then I forgot about it.
Then a year passed.
I rediscovered Haunted Blues earlier this week as I was rummaging for unfinished work to polish up and post. I gave it a listen, and was struck by how I lingered on the haunting-but-charming Bessie Smith songs I’d failed to pare down. Alberta Hunter, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf and Victoria Spivey (incredible stage names, all) gave me the same sensation, and I realized something: why on Earth should I sift through kitsch and homage when the real deal was right there, completely unexplored?
I didn’t want a Haunted Blues playlist – I wanted the blues exactly as they already were: haunting, sure, but also sincere, funny, strange and deeply spiritual. I had to start from scratch.
Over the next two days I dropped anything made after about 1960 and went hunting for the oldiest, creepiest and crackliest recordings I could find; the weirder the better. I scoured compilations, Wikipedia pages and strange old blues sites for anything with the right feel.
I wanted graveyards, skeletons and ghost-songs to celebrate the October season. What I encountered was an entire history-lesson’s worth of Black, American songs obsessed with death, resurrection, the devil and, yes, God. Bessie Smith’s trips to the graveyard – of course – kept their places in the mix, but now she’s joined by Charley Patton, serenading his own mortality while the recording audibly collapses into static around him. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s congregation delivers a sermon on the Black Train of Death on one side, while Howlin’ Wolf bellows Evil from the other. Pioneers Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Leola Manning and Big Mama Thornton are all here, each with their own takes life, death and the world between. In a particularly chilling moment, Victoria Spivey guides us through a blood-soaked murder scene in which she is, in a sense, killer and victim at once.
I had to give her a different song later on, just to back away from the sight. Every song on this list is suffused with the same intense imagery. Death is a main character here, but only as a way to explore deeper meaning in life.
Leola Manning, shouting forward from the twenties, sees death everywhere she looks – and reminds us exactly where the devil is hard at work. Lead Belly, a convicted murderer, rides the Midnight Special across state lines with a bandana hiding the prison-fight scar across his neck. Robert Johnson, killed with poisoned whiskey served to him by a romantic rival, sees the Hellhound chasing him down.
All Joe Thomas wants, really, is to be lain down in a lavender coffin on the day he goes to rest. Same.
In the past, Long Hallowe’en mixtapes have focused on, well, Hallowe’en music: they’ve been explorations of genre-fiction and Horror tropes designed to liven up a party rather than frighten or pass on a moral message. They’re playing with fear as a concept, rather than actually trying to frighten anyone. They’re fun! While the headstones and graveyards might appear similar, the blues approaches its grim subject matter in a fundamentally different way. It’s still about Horror, but it’s more complicated than it might seem.
Between the songs about heartbreak and sparring cats, whatever actual Horror can be found on Lavender Coffin revolves around the fear of divine retribution: it’s literally biblical. We’re talking about deeply religious, personal music here, made by people dealing with a whole other level of hardship. It understandably opens a portal to a time and place where death was considered in a very different light than it (often) is now. These songs are obsessed with mortality, but it isn’t necessarily out of a sense of fear. Death, to the blues, is the end credits: the most dramatic part of an unavoidable process. Songs like Cain’t no Grave Holy My Body Down, See That My Grave’s Kept Clean and even Lavender Coffin itself seem to take place after the death of their singers. Death itself is almost incidental, it’s the same fixation that we find in Gospel music: death is one small part of a much larger, cosmic event – one with far more compelling moving parts than the fear of death itself. Life, full of suffering, and the eventual rewards of the afterlife are the real focus here.
Beyond all that, it’s easy to forget that the blues, grim as it often seems, was popular music: there are dance songs here, party numbers and love songs. There’s laughter amongst the headstones, as unlikely as it might seem. This is music born of extreme hardship: it mourns and perseveres at once.
For the record, I’m not a religious person. But you really don’t have to be religious to get how a song like See That My Grave’s Kept Clean holds a kind of power, and it certainly doesn’t take a time machine to relate to, like, anything Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf moan over their guitars. John the Revelator has lost zero of its stunning power in the last hundred years – but neither has My Castle’s Rockin’.
I have no idea what it means when Alberta Hunter says to ‘bust your conk’, but i feel like maybe I can guess?
It’s haunting music either way, whether the subject matter is literally creepy, or because listening to this stuff has a way of feeling like stepping into a time machine. There’s material from 1926 on here, and it’s about the devil. That’s wild to me! That’s worth highlighting all on its own.
Everything about my little project changed the moment I decided to study the origin of the music I was interested in, instead of its descendants and imitators. I dropped the kitsch (for once!) and sought out the source. To my surprise, my anodyne, millennial Hallowe’en Blues playlist turned into something closer to a survey of early 20th century Black, American folk music. And not by accident.
Yes, the fixation on looming death and romantic graveyards made cutting together a Hallowe’en-y hour and a half a bit easier, but that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to do it. There’s actually one more thing I wanted to bring up before I let this one fly. It was bugging me as I sat there, unwilling to publish the original (weaker) version of this mixtape. It’s still bugging me because it’s true:
Hallowe’en is white as hell.
And I don’t mean this in a necessarily negative way, but I say this as someone who has been nuts about Hallowe’en my entire life: the media we watch over this holiday season? Overwhelmingly white. The music, the costumes, the personalities we most associate with Hallowe’en? I dunno, take a scroll. Horror as a subgenre has been (and continues to be!) an amazing place for marginalized creators to take up space and make their voices heard, but the fact remains that there’s a bias there. It’s the same one we see in a ton of genre-fiction spaces.
And, um, spaces in general. Just.. spaces.
I say this not to castigate anyone in particular, but we would all do well to expand our horizons. Horror has been doing really well in terms of spotlighting diverse voices the last bunch of years and that’s rad, let’s keep doing that. I just also think that Horror, with its unique ability to speak the truth in frank terms, should be uniquely qualified to push back against racism. And that maybe it could do better.
Curbing the overwhelming racial bias in our media should be easy, right? We have to start somewhere.
But was I gonna sit back and do a playlist of goofy Millennial karaoke-blues without highlighting the real deal first? When there’s a deficit in my own attempts at representation on this site? No way, of course not. Sometimes kitsch is the wrong call: it felt disingenuous to paper over actual spiritual music with play-acting. This mixtape is Black, American music – all of it – and it documents about 30 years of the Black American history. I’m no expert, but I’m trying, and like a lot of kitsch loving dorks, I’m overdue for giving these artists center stage. So I’m fixing that right now.
Here’s Lavender Coffin: exactly an hour and a half of Haunted Blues, Murder Ballads and Salvation.
31 tracks for 31 days, which was an accident at first, but now is not.
This mixtape is an entry into the Long Hallowe’en X! I’m racing to catch up with this year’s articles, but you need to watch me obsess over a totally different kind of haunted blues, can I suggest this gigantic history of Black Sabbath I wrote back in 2020? Perhaps an hour of possessed computer monitors and whispering satellite dishes is more your thing. Either way, see you next time!
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