Tunesday: Soulful songs of sin

There’s something both romantic and haunting about autumn. And it’s not just because Halloween is coming up. Gritty and poignant, these songs illuminate human sin in its most mundane forms — hatred, indulgence and obsession.

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

Written by teacher Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” is a poem turned song about black lynchings in the South. Billie Holiday recorded the song in 1939, decades after the abolition of slavery, but before the Civil Rights Movement. The imagery is gruesome: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Sounds familiar? Kanye West sampled Nina Simone’s 1965 rendition of “Strange Fruit” in 2013’s “Blood on the Leaves.”

House of the Rising Sun by The Animals

One of the most well-known songs in Western music, this hit serves as an eerie cautionary tale. “House of the Rising Sun” details the narrator’s debauchery in New Orleans and his life crumbling before him because of drinking and gambling. The song’s origins are unknown, some speculating that it originates from 16th and 17th century folk songs.

Hotel California by The Eagles

The simple beat and riffs in the song make it a famous classic. “Hotel California” feels laidback yet somewhat nostalgic. But the lyrics indicate a somewhat creepy, dreamy setting: “And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’ / And in the master’s chambers, / They gathered for the feast / They stab it with their steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast.” Though many have ruminated upon the song’s connection with Satanism, the more conventional interpretation is that the song is an allegory for the excesses of wealth and fame.

Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson

Remember when blues player Robert Johnson (played by La Monde Byrd) sold his soul to a crossroads demon in “Supernatural?” While there is a 99.9 percent chance that this encounter is entirely fictional, one can’t deny that there’s something unsettling about Johnson’s iconic blues piece. Along with his ill guitar playing, Johnson sings about asking God for mercy at a crossroads while begging to hitch a ride. Some have taken the crossroad to be an allegory for racism, while others have speculated that the song is about Johnson giving his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical abilities.

I Put a Spell on You by Nina Simone

This song narrates the feelings of an obsessive lover. The original track was by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, also known as Jalacy Hawkins, and originally became famous because of his rowdy, dramatic performances of this song, which were usually filled with grunts and moans. Simone’s version, in contrast, is a smoother, jazzier listen with a more lovelorn connotation.

Stacey Nguyen covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].