Mr. Mixtape-ptlk, Track #8: "Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard" by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1994)

Screamin' Jay Hawkins is not an unknown figure on my old Halloween mixtapes. I have used him a couple times before, and I will use him again. The most natural fit, and the first song that I ever used of his because of this, is I Put a Spell on You, his most renowned and ultra-famous track, a song that everyone who is worthwhile and not a waste of frigging space on this planet should know. 

Most would assume, like I did at first, that owing to just how famous the song is that I Put a Spell on You had been a Number One hit at some point. Nope. Written and recorded by Hawkins in 1956, I Put a Spell on You never charted despite being released as a single in multiple version. The song, for a variety of reasons (and you can guess at some of them) was banned on many radio stations and record stores.

But you could put almost any Screamin' Jay Hawkins song on a Halloween mixtape of any variety, and be able to come up with a pretty good case why it should stay, no matter what the content might be on the song. Other Halloween favorites of mine that Hawkins essayed are Feast of the Mau Mau, wherein he described in excruciating detail every lurid element that goes into each course of a headhunter feast (only partially cannibalistic), and Little Demon, which tells the tale of a furious, love-besotted devil who will do anything to get his demon love back... you know, the kind of story all parents love your kids to hear, especially in the '50s.

Then again, anything Hawkins sang, even the most innocent subjects, like pure love in the song Frenzy, could sound exotic, profane, mysterious, lurid, filthy, and arcane, sometimes all at the same time. He punctuated his lyrical readings with strange burbling noises, scat syllables, popping sounds, and other mannerisms that separate any of his tracks easily from any other performer of his time. They also make him marvelously fascinating to listen to even sixty years later, because you just never know what you are going to hear come out of him next. His song Moanin' is basically under three minutes of Hawkins screeching nonsense sounds over a blues riff and nothing more for the first full half of the song, and then deciding to actually sing something close to lyrics for the second half... and it kills. It's smoky and pain-ridden and sweaty, and nearly perfect.

Hawkins toured for decades, and this is where he had it over everyone for many years: Hawkins had THE ACT... he was Alice Cooper, he was Arthur Brown, he was the Cramps, Marilyn Manson, the Misfits, GWAR – before the world had any idea that we wanted a horror show music act onstage, or even needed the role to be regularly fulfilled time and time again throughout the years. He dressed in wild costumes, wore tusks coming out of his nose, arose out of a coffin onstage, carried a staff with a skull on the end and snakes winding around it, and performed crazy rituals while the music pumped around him. He influenced scores of artists, more than you could ever imagine. And if you ever meet anyone who doesn't love I Put a Spell on You as sung by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then they are lying to your face.

One of those artists was Tom Waits, who would be cast along with Hawkins in the 1989 film Mystery Train by mutual friend, director Jim Jarmusch. (Jarmusch had used I Put a Spell on You quite memorably in his breakthrough arthouse hit Stranger Than Paradise.) In 1994, Hawkins released an album of new material titled  and included amongst the tracks was his version of a Waits song – Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard originally written for Tom's 1978 album, Blue Valentine.

Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard
(Tom Waits)
As sung by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Comin’ in on a night train with an arm full of boxcars
On the wings of a magpie cross a hooligan night
Busted up a chifforobe way out by the Kokomo
Cooked up a mess of mulligan and got into a fight

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

You probably seen me sleepin’ out by the railroad tracks
Ask the prince of darkness about the smoke from the stack
Sometimes I kill a jackal and suck out all the blood
Steal myself a station wagon, drive it into the mud

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

I know you seen my headlights and the honkin’ of my horn
I'm callin’ out my bloodhounds chase the devil out the corn
Last night I drank the Mississippi and now its dry as a bone
I was born in a taxi cab; I ain’t never goin’ home

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

My eyes have seen the glory of the draining of the ditch
I’m comin’ to Baton Rouge to find myself a witch
I'm gonna switch me a couple of ‘em every time it rains
You’re gonna see a locomotive probably think it’s a train

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

What you think is sunshine is just a twinkle in my eye
I got a ring around my finger called the Fourth of July
When I get lonesome, a tear falls from my cheek
there's gonna be an ocean in the middle of the week

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

I come in on the night train with an arm full of boxcars
On the wings of a magpie cross a hooligan night
I'm gonna tear off a rainbow and wear it for a tie
I never told the truth so how in the hell can I tell a lie

Whistlin' past the graveyard, steppin' on a crack
I’m a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack

Words and Lyrics by Tom Waits | Published by: Fifth Floor Music, Inc. (ASCAP), © 1978

Waits' lyrics are a perfect match for Hawkins' style, even if the opening verse smacks fully of the beat style that is more a fit for Waits than anyone else. But the song settles into bluesier, more accessible territory, and Hawkins wraps his voice around every syllable, making each one count. While I am a huge fan of Waits and have the bulk of his catalogue in my collection, I sincerely believe that Hawkins improves upon Waits' own rendering of the same tune, even making some lyrical edits that tighten the structure of certain lines so he can deliver them with maximum impact.

The song is not overtly Halloween material. Apart from the graveyard mentioned in the title and chorus, we aren't meeting monsters or ghosts or anything purely evil here. Taken at face value, the song is merely about a man bragging about exactly how BAD he is. It's really nothing more than the type of boasting one might find in many older blues songs or current rap or hip hop songs. 

But Hawkins, through the words or Tom Waits, speaks of bloodhounds chasing down the devil, of killing a jackal and sucking out the blood, seeking out witches, and consulting with the prince of darkness. And he sells it all through that incredible, commanding, and – by that point in time – slightly weathered voice of his. The performance doesn't just make you believe that the man in the song is as hard as they come, but also the dark, haunted world he inhabits. If that isn't Halloween territory, I don't know what is.

And if you hear this and don't believe Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a mean Mother Hubbard Papa One-Eyed Jack, then you just don't know anything at all.



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