Though recorded and performed by many singers, “Gloomy Sunday” is closely associated with Billie Holiday, who scored a hit version of the song in 1941. Due to unsubstantiated urban legends about its inspiring hundreds of suicides, “Gloomy Sunday” was dubbed the “Hungarian suicide song” in the U.S.. Seress did commit suicide in 1968, but most other rumors of the song being banned from radio, or sparking suicides, are unsubstantiated, and were partly propagated as a deliberate marketing campaign.
Szomorú vasárnap száz fehér virággal
Vártalak kedvesem templomi imával
Álmokat kergető vasárnap délelőtt
Bánatom hintaja nélküled visszajött
Azóta szomorú mindig a vasárnap
Könny csak az italom kenyerem a bánat…
— László Jávor
original hungarian version
There have been several urban legends regarding the song over the years, mostly involving it being allegedly connected with various numbers of suicides, and radio networks reacting by purportedly banning the song. However, most of these claims are unsubstantiated.
In 1968, Rezső Seress, the original composer, jumped to his death from his apartment. His obituary in the New York Times mentions the song’s notorious reputation:
“ Budapest, January 13. Rezsoe Seres, whose dirge-like song hit, “Gloomy Sunday” was blamed for touching off a wave of suicides during the nineteen-thirties, has ended his own life as a suicide it was learned today.
Authorities disclosed today that Mr. Seres jumped from a window of his small apartment here last Sunday, shortly after his 69th birthday.
The decade of the nineteen-thirties was marked by severe economic depression and the political upheaval that was to lead to World War II. The melancholy song written by Mr. Seres, with words by his friend, Ladislas Javor, a poet, declares at its climax, “My heart and I have decided to end it all.” It was blamed for a sharp increase in suicides, and Hungarian officials finally prohibited it. In America, where Paul Robeson introduced an English version, some radio stations and nightclubs forbade its performance.
Mr. Seres complained that the success of “Gloomy Sunday” actually increased his unhappiness, because he knew he would never be able to write a second hit.
- New York Times, 1968
Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread…
literal english translation
In 1997 Billy Mackenzie, vocalist with Scottish band The Associates (who recorded a cover of Holiday’s version in 1982), committed suicide near his father’s home in Dundee.
The codifying of the urban legend appears in an article attributed to “D.P. MacDonald” and titled “Overture to Death”, the text of which has been reproduced and disseminated countless times online. According to the website of Phespirit the article was originally published by the ‘Justin and Angi’ site to augment their now defunct “Gloomy Sunday Radio Show”. Their introduction to the article reads:
“ This message was forwarded to us by a visitor to our web site. There is some good historical information on the song intermixed with some information of more dubious repute. The accounts begin to take on the feel of a satiric e-mail chain letter after a while, but then, sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction. The story does read a little bit like the script of a segment from Strange Universe! So take this with a grain of salt ….. The text was [supposedly] quoted from the Cincinnati (sic) Journal of Ceremonial Magick, vol I, no I, printed in 1976.