The Album that Frightened America (Almost) to Death

by William Burns

Though the U.S. emerged relatively structurally undamaged after World War Two (and financially even better than before), the psychological issues for both the returning vets and those left behind were substantial. Unable to escape into the past because of the horrors witnessed overseas on both sides of the world and fearful of the future as the next world war seemed just around the corner, the new American was a mélange of modern neuroses, old fashioned prejudices, worldly cynicism, and naïve patriotism.  The anesthetizing joint effect of consumerism and technology unleashed a plethora of pop culture trends and fads to give the prosperous but existentially lost American citizen something to distract themselves with before the A-bomb made everything superfluous.  Two of these social movements continue to enthrall even into the blasé 21st century: exotica and monster movie culture. For many that had lived through the unrelenting brutality of the Pacific theater campaign, part of the psychic healing of their traumatized souls was recreating the beauty of the South Seas without the political and cultural baggage.  Tropical drinks, bamboo huts, squat grotesquely funny idols, brightly colored shirts, and native sexuality all helped to push thoughts of blown off limbs, death marches, incinerated bodies, and dysentery from their scarred minds. The soundtrack to these imperialistic reveries was exotica, grandiose loungey  fake world music that could transform one’s gaudy suburban backyard into a Hawaiian luau and transport the listener to Gaugin’s scantily clad paradise.  Artists like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman, and Yma Sumac produced wonderfully evocative sounds that are some of the most magickal compositions ever committed to vinyl.  Concurrently, while their parents were getting bombed on Zombies and Mai Tais, the kids needed something to distract them from Elvis’s hips and duck and cover drills. The resurgence in horror films spearheaded by Hammer Films and Roger Corman and reinforced by endless reruns of the Universal Monster movie package sold to television stations gave kids a threat, though frightening, that could be soundly defeated unlike the Cold War sword of Damocles hanging over their young heads.  Famous Monsters of Filmland kept hormones in check until Playboy would find its way under mattresses across the country.  The soothing allure of exotica and the thrilling morbidity of the monster movie craze seemed worlds apart and yet could they be brought together? The answer to this question would be an odd record of Frankensteinian components, a musical experiment that would have dire consequences for creator and listeners alike. 

It all started at Kapp Records in New York City. An independently owned label founded by David Kapp in 1954, Kapp Records released albums in a variety of genres: big band, jazz, classical, original cast albums from Broadway shows, and easy listening.  Kapp had a few subsidiary labels for their weirder, more outré releases ,with Medallion Records, their “audiophile label,” being the most out there with titles like Surprise Party Latin Style, Mr. Interlocutor: The Sound of a Minstrel Show, The Sound of Hawaii Percussive Pineapples, The Sound of Midnight: the Naked City, A Medallion Demonstration of Percussive Stereo: For Sound Bugs and Lovers of Great Entertainment.  A few exotica titles slipped out on this label but with the rise of monster movies and thrillers in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Kapp had an interesting idea: a horror themed exotica album.  Kapp casually asked one of his in-house engineers what he thought of this idea, and the engineer (whose name seems to be forgotten with the passage of the time) had just the right person to bring this concept to fruition: Raymond Ford.

Raymond Ford was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1927. He was a piano prodigy, attending the Schillinger House, the precursor to the Berklee School of Music, in Boston. The only description of Ford recorded for posterity is that he was a quiet, cultured man interested in music, history, and the paranormal. A congenital heart condition kept him from being drafted during World War Two.  Ford’s family wealth allowed him to compose and pursue his studies independently. He allegedly was a patron of an occult study group located in Greenwich Village (though it’s questionable whether he took it seriously) and it was through this group that Kapp’s engineer knew Ford.  Kapp was looking to add more novelty theme records to the Medallion roster, and when the idea of a Halloween exotica LP came up, the engineer suggested Ford as an option to make a really scary record for the company. Ford was an unknown commodity so was paid scale to produce and perform on the record.

The recording of the album is undocumented and is shrouded in mystery.  Some researchers have speculated that musician and arranger Kenyon Hopkins was part of the production of the album.  Hopkins had been involved in Creed Taylor’s Shock Music in HiFi (1958), and Panic: The Son of Shock (1960), two horror influenced jazz records that may have influenced Kapp’s concept. Hopkins was a friend of Kapp’s and Hopkins would later release his own horror jazz album with the Creed Taylor Orchestra entitled Nightmare!! (1962).  While Ford is given the title of executive producer and arranger on A Night in a Deserted Graveyard, there are a few tracks that  are listed with a “Boris Pratt—co-producer/arranger” credit. My research has not turned up any information on a “Boris Pratt,” except that this may be a pseudonym (possibly for Hopkins?) as it uses the first name of Boris Karloff and the last name of William Pratt (Boris Karloff’s real name).  No musicians are listed on the cover and later enquiries could not recall the musical personnel on the album but it is conjectured that many of the musicians who worked on Hopkins’ early 60’s albums such as Joe Wilder, Ray Beckenstein, Eddie Caine, Mundell Lowe, Milt Hinton, Don Lamond, Panama Francis, Doug Allan, Brad Spinney, Phil Kraus, and Flo Handy may have been involved. The album’s use of vibraphone sounds very much like the work of Joe Venuto, who appeared on releases by Hopkins.  What made the album really special were the use of field recordings from actual haunted and occult sites interwoven into the tracks’ compositions: “Sacrifice at Mystery Hill “(Salem, New Hampshire),  “The Return of Mercy Brown” (Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Exeter, Rhode Island), “The Green Lady” (The Seventh Day Baptist Cemetery, Burlington, Connecticut),  “The Curse of Dudleytown”(Cornwall, Connecticut),  “Indian Massacre Pond” (Scarborough, Maine), “The Lonesome Death of Ida Black” (Bucksport Cemetery, Bucksport, Maine), “Emily’s Bridge” (Stowe, Vermont), “Grave of the Witch” (The Old Burying Yard, York, Maine), “The Devil’s Hopyard”(East Haddam, Connecticut),  “Gallow’s Hill” (Salem /Danvers, Massachusetts), “The Place of Strange Noises” (Moodus, Connecticut), and “Séance at the Coffin House” (Nantucket, Massachusetts). Ford made all the field recordings himself, alone, with a hand held recorder on his travels around New England.  The album took about a month to record and was released in late September of 1962. Supposedly, Ford had wanted the album to have a more esoteric title, but Kapp insisted that the album be called A Night in a Deserted Graveyard to reach a wider, younger, less sophisticated audience.

A Night in a Deserted Graveyard was a modest seller but after a month, possibly apocryphal reports of hauntings, possessions, supernatural happenings, murders, and a suicide alarmed parents, teachers, clergymen, and other moral guardians, who demanded its removal from shelves and destruction of copies.  A kind of mass panic gripped the Northeast as urban legends of a haunted record ran wild through schoolyards, churches, and PTA meetings.  In my research, I have found only one connection of the “haunted” record with an actual strange incident. On Halloween 1962 in Smithtown, Long Island, 15 year old Maureen Sandford took her three younger siblings out trick or treating. She returned home three hours later claiming that the children had been lured into a car and the car had sped off with the children.  The Sandfords alerted the police, but Maureen was unable to give the authorities any useful information even though she had witnessed the alleged abduction. On November 2nd, Maureen was found in her family bathroom dead, her wrists slit with her father’s straight razor. Her missing siblings were never found.  The tenuous connection: she had borrowed her friend’s copy of A Night in a Deserted Graveyard and had been listening to it “constantly” in the two weeks before Halloween (according to her unidentified friend).  Maureen was particularly taken with the track “The Return of Mercy Brown,” based on a real case of vampirism that occurred in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892, where 19 year old Mercy was believed to have preyed upon her siblings.  Regardless of the authenticity of these reports, the album was pulled and Raymond Ford faded into obscurity once again. One has to wonder if the threat of impending mass annihilation from the Cuban Missile Crisis that October had anything to do with the level of hysteria that was projected onto this eerie little album.

I have been unable to find anything at all about Ford’s post A Night in a Deserted Graveyard life, and the commonality of his name has made research particularly difficult. The majority of the information on this phenomenon comes from an article published in the October 6, 1979 issue of Sounds (Gary Numan is on the cover). Music journalist Douglas Howard actually found a copy of A Night in a Deserted Graveyard in a used record store in Newcastle, UK. Intrigued by the album, Howard tried to uncover as much as possible on Ford and the record.  Howard wrote to David Kapp, but he had died in 1976. The letter was received by his brother Paul, who had acted as Director of Publishing for Knapp Records, and was able to give Howard the small amount of biographical and historical material that has circulated since the release of the album. Unfortunately, Howard seems to have also retreated from public life as he doesn’t seem to have published anything since the article “A Haunted Album?” appeared in 1979 or if he has, he’s using a pseudonym or his real name if Douglas Howard was his pen name. Again, the ubiquity of his name makes tracking down the right Douglas Howard trying to say the least.  After reading Howard’s article, I became obsessed with finding a copy of this record and after many hours of fruitless trolling through Amazon, Discogs, GEMM, E-Bay, torrents, blogs, message boards, etc. (I even braved the vinyl jungle of Williamsburg, Brooklyn), I  realized my amateur sleuthing was not cutting it and that I would have to go to the experts. I contacted a notorious record collector who works for the Shamballa of radio stations WFMU and begged and pleaded until he sent me a cassette copy and a photocopy of the front and back covers. He sent these treasures to me with two conditions: 1. I was not to share or upload my copy with anyone and 2. He would remain nameless so that he would not be inundated with requests for the album. 

So what does a haunted record sound like? A Night in a Deserted Graveyard has a bleak, melancholic atmosphere, invoking a New England winter, with mournful strings, moody wind woods, and stark piano. The overall mix seems mastered at a low volume, but I’m not sure if that’s what the original intention was or if it’s just my copy, but it gives the album a proto-ambient feel.  Vaguely familiar sea shanties, folk songs, and colonial era dirges float in and out of the natural sounds of Ford’s field recordings. Ford’s insistence on not using any gimmicks, Foley effects, or clichéd horror sounds results in a somber yet oddly beautiful listening experience. The majority of the tracks use vibraphone for percussion but on the pieces that reflect Native American influences, deeper, more profound and earthy rhythms incessantly beckon.  Again, because of the low volume, its heard to pick out specific details but a few of the tracks seem to have vocals although I was not able to decipher what, if anything, was being said or sung nor was I able to identify whether the speaker/singer was male or female.

The album cover consists of a photo taken in the Old Burying Ground in York, ME of the grave of Mary Nasson, a suspected witch who died in 1774. Her grave consists of a headstone, a heelstone, and a large slab placed on top of the grave to prevent her from returning from the dead and clawing her way out of the ground. In the background, on a stone wall, a lone crow sits perched (a local legend claims that crows were Nasson’s familiars). The picture was taken at dusk. The title of the album is written in creepy horror lettering, not unlike the font used on Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power.  The back cover consists of the track titles and two photographs: the photo on the left is of a dilapidated 18th century house in Dudleytown, CT and the other is of the bare hanging tree on Gallow’s Hill in Salem, MA. Both photos were taken on grey, overcast days. No photographer is credited but Howard assumes it was Ford. At the bottom of the back cover are the following liner notes, unaccredited:

“Do you believe in things that go bump in the night? Would you spend a night in a deserted graveyard?  Take a tour of haunted New England through the creepy tones and spooky melodies of this supernatural music. Complete with the actual sounds of angry ghosts, vengeful witches, and Indian spirits recorded on the windy shores of Nantucket, at the creaking hanging tree of Salem, through the Old Colonial Burial Ground, and in the abandoned town of Dudleyville!   As the stroke of midnight tolls, you will be THERE! Listen with your best girl, but leave room in your lap! Perfect for a Halloween date!”

The labels on the record are the usual Medallion Records labels and the matrix number is ML 7537/MS 7537. According to my WMFU connection, it was released with a standard Medallion Records inner sleeve. 

After months of research, I am still left with several crucial questions unanswered: What happened to Raymond Ford? Who owns the rights to A Night in a Deserted Graveyard? Where are the master tapes? Who participated in the making of the record? Are the legends of its malevolent influence true? Who were its victims? What happened to Ford’s field recordings and did he do more? I’m not sure if any of these inquiries will ever be satisfactorily answered. Yet isn’t it nice to have at least one unsolved cultural mystery in the age of endless information overload?

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