Ghost Songs

ghost on stairs

*Disclaimer: I’m just a human, but decided to write this post in the voice of a ghost. Happy Halloween!

I love when October rolls around. It’s the one time of year when even the non-believers sort of, at least kind of, acknowledge the idea of ghosts. Yes, I am a ghost.*

October: Finally a chance to shine, even if I’m just a shade. When my ghost-hand whispers across your sleeping face at exactly 3:33 AM, maybe you’ll think twice before assuming it was all just a dream.

(It was me!)

Why am i here?

I recently began wondering what I am and why I’m here. While contemplating my existence, I thought about ghost songs. Some of our oldest ghost stories were passed forward through time by way of music, contained and carried within song.

Margaret and William

Perhaps the most storied ghosts in songs are called Margaret and William. I have yet to find examples of them being ghosts at the same time. Sometimes Margaret is the ghost, and sometimes it’s William. Sometimes Margaret isn’t even called Margaret, which is probably pretty confusing for William.

Margaret and William just can’t seem to find middle ground, no matter what variation songwriters explore. Their relationship consists of haunting one another, and sometimes William saying, “And let me kiss those cold corpsy lips,” which is probably one of the creepiest pickup lines I’ve ever heard (and I’m a ghost*).

Margaret is called Little, Fair, Proud, and sometimes even Pretty Polly. It’s unclear how Pretty Polly was derived from the name Margaret, though this strongly suggests she’s associated with Pretty Polly from the traditional murder ballad, which has a less romantic, less ghostly story behind it.

William is always referred to as Sweet, whether ghost or alive, and so is presumably one of the best ghosts or living beings you could run into. Maybe just don’t let him kiss you. Fortunately, he’d probably say something super awkward and ruin the mood with his morbidity before this would even become a possibility.

Also, if Margaret really is related to the Pretty Polly of the murder ballad, then Sweet William could very well be a close relation to her cruel killer, Little Willie. Not so sweet after all, William?

The Songs

Here’s one variation on the star-crossed love story of Margaret and William. It’s called “Sweet William’s Ghost”, performed by the UK folk group The Spinners**. The intro to this recording even briefly describes the history of William and Margaret in British folk songs.

**Note: This is a folkier, and lesser known The Spinners from the UK, not to be confused with the Detroit R&B group The Spinners who recorded such nostalgic, soulful favorites as “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” and “I’ll Be Around” in the early 1970s.

The English folk song “The Unquiet Grave” is thought to be related to “Sweet William’s Ghost”. Here’s Shirley Collins, who played an important role in the English Folk Revival of the 1960s.

Here’s one starring Margaret: “Little Margaret” by Karen Dalton. This version was recorded privately by Dalton and her close friend, Joe Loop, while ensconced in a cottage in Boulder, Colorado in 1962/1963.

Buffy Sainte Marie also sings of Margaret in her 1966 song “Lady Margaret”. This if off her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin.

Here’s a nice list on different variations of Fair Margaret and Sweet William.

Wuthering Heights

Some aspects of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights appear to be inspired by William and Margaret’s story. Heathcliff might be the super angsty shadow version of Sweet William. They both enjoy kissing the cold corpsy lips of their lost loves – though Heathcliff passionately shakes Cathy’s corpse in his arms, and curses her to haunt him and never find peace, while Sweet William falls asleep with Margaret’s corpse in his arms, usually after kissing her three times. As a ghost*, I’m kind of disturbed by both scenarios.

In 1978 Kate Bush wrote a hit song from Cathy’s perspective. Cathy’s very cold, and won’t Heathcliff just let her in through his window so she can grab his soul away? Soul grabbing is so romantic and not scary at all. Come on, Heathcliff, what do you say?

If you’ve never seen the music videos for “Wuthering Heights” they’re must-sees. Here’s a version to start with.

Final thoughts

I still don’t understand why I exist, and what a ghost really is, but may we all spend some quality time with our ghostly loves as the veil between worlds thins for the holiday season. Happy Halloween!