Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “Henry Lee” — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds featuring P. J. Harvey (1996)

I can’t get down and I won’t get down
And stay all night with thee
For the girl I have in that merry green land
I love far better than thee
And the wind did howl and the wind did blow…

Quite frankly, you could do a WHOLE lot worse than Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, and to say that’s “putting things mildly” as akin to commenting upon a private lapdance from Shakira as “a pretty good way to kill an hour”.

Was that a forced comparison? Who cares… I’m still caught up on that Shakira lapdance. Gimme a sec.

OK yes. We’re going strong with this year’s Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs and we’re maintaining that momentum with the latest addition, the exquisitely haunting Henry Lee from the aforementioned music legends Cave and Harvey, and this is a creeper tune that will turn your blood to ice and break your heart with grief and terror.

The song is featured on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’s classic 1996 LP Murder Ballads, which hosts any number of worthy entries to this list, but Henry Lee is as strong a representation as any. The song is a newer take on a traditional Scottish folk ballad, in which a scorned woman murders the man who denies her his affections for the love of another woman. In cold, calculated rage, the woman invites Henry to stand with her by a fence, by a tree, and offers up one last kiss before he is set to leave her.

The light gleams off the blade of the pen-knife. There’s a splash at the bottom the well. Somewhere another woman waits for her beloved to return. And a little bird watches it all…

Henry Lee is your quintessential spookfest. Nothing supernatural to be found here, but the song doesn’t need it. It’s a slow, minor-key, piano-driven burn, and Cave’s and Harvey’s dueling vocals pierce the soul in a mournful wail. And yet, the song remains strangely beautiful in its own terrifying way. The lingering dread that chills you for the longest does so not from its explicit scares, but from quiet, haunting, soul-rendering heartbreak.

Lie there, lie there, little Henry Lee
Till the flesh drops from your bones
For the girl you have in that merry green land
Can wait forever for you to come home

And the wind did howl and the wind did moan
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee…

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