Doing the Zombie Jamboree With 'The Walking Dead'

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Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

The soundtrack album to The Walking Dead comes out this week: a collection of music that's (mostly) been prominently featured on the AMC zombie-survival series. The album's first single is Jamie N. Commons' "Lead Me Home," below; it also includes a previously unreleased Of Monsters and Men track and an UNKLE remix of Bear McCreary's theme music.

The undead tend to inspire songwriters -- there are great songs on the subject from Fela Kuti's "Zombie" to Roky Erickson's "I Walked with a Zombie" to the Misfits' "Astro Zombies," and let's not even get into "Thriller." (Nonetheless, I'd argue that the only one that's actually as scary as getting chased by a brain-eating corpse is Jad Fair's "The Zombies of Mora-Tau," below.)

But the zombie music tradition goes back well over 50 years. And the most durable zombie song of all wasn't originally about zombies: it was about jumbies.

In Caribbean folklore, jumbies, or jumbees, are evil spirits that can possess people. Sometime around 1953, a calypso singer from Tobago known as Lord Intruder (real name: Winston O'Conner) reportedly performed -- and may or may not have recorded -- a song called "Jumbie Jamberee," about finding himself surrounded by dancing jumbies. Note that that's Lord Intruder, not the earlier, more famous calypso star Lord Invader, who's occasionally gotten credit for it. (The latter was responsible for writing one of the biggest calypso hits ever, "Rum and Coca-Cola," an acerbic song about profiting from American G.I.s; here's his original version.)

"Jumbie Jamberee," in its original incarnation, seems to have been lost to time. But it made the rounds, and sometime around 1954, a young American calypso singer -- Louis Wolcott, a classically trained violinist -- recorded it as "Back to Back, Belly to Belly," under the name the Charmer. (His version, and subsequent ones, are set in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, New York.) Wolcott never made much of a splash as a musician, although he's much better known under the name he adopted several years later: Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.

In early 1957, the song reappeared, this time with zombies replacing the jumbies: "Zombie Jamboree (Back to Back)" appeared as the B-side of an American single by Calypso Carnival Featuring King Flash. (That version is credited to "Patterson - Walcott"--maybe the latter was a misspelling of Wolcott?) Billboard's review: "Another wild affair, but one the taste of which may be questioned." The phrase "zombie jamboree" had been around for at least a decade before that: in the mid-'40s, there was a traveling "spook show" called the "Midnight Zombie Jamboree," with horror movies and onstage actors dressed as monsters.

"Zombie Jamboree"'s profile increased dramatically, though, from an unlikely recording made in August, 1958, and released at the beginning of 1959. The Kingston Trio's live album ...from the "Hungry i" featured a spirited folk version of the song (below) and popularized it across the U.S. -- within a couple of years, the album had gone gold. Interestingly, the Kingston Trio's album gives writing credit to Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr., who turns up as the song's writer on most subsequent versions; Mauge only had two other songwriting credits to his name in the BMI database, both by the Trinidad Serenaders, and was posthumously honored last year as a "New York steel band pioneer."

Dave Guard's totally fictitious introduction to the Kingston Trio's version gave several million people the wrong idea about where the song had come from. Lord Invader had nothing to do with "Zombie Jamboree," and the song that won the "road march" category at the 1955 Carnival in Trinidad was "The Happy Wanderer," a British hit by the German Obernkirchen Children's Choir, which had caused some controversy since it wasn't even a calypso.

Harry Belafonte is very often associated with "Zombie Jamboree," and performed it many times over the years, but his first recording of it wasn't until 1962, three years after the Kingston Trio. Here's an intensely silly 1969 TV performance by Belafonte, featuring undulating hippie chicks and wiggling feet.

In 1965 or 1966, the Wailers -- Bob Marley's Jamaican group, not the Washington-based garage-rock band -- released "Jumbie Jamboree," written and sung by Peter Tosh. It's a very different song from the familiar "Zombie Jamboree," but starts with just about the same verse.

After the '60s "Zombie Jamboree" was dormant for a while, aside from a perfunctory cover on Harry Nilsson's 1976 album ...That's the Way It Is. Zombies don't stay dead, though, and in 1989, the song turned up again in an unexpected context. The Jamaican folk group the Jolly Boys had been around for something like 40 years in various forms (and split into two separate lineups) when they regrouped and released Pop 'n' Mento. That album became an international world-music success--and it featured "Back to Back (Belly to Belly)," the familiar jamboree under the name the Charmer had used. Here's a clip of the Jolly Boys playing it live.

In 1990, "Zombie Jamboree" reappeared as Rockapella's extremely campy breakthrough performance (on the TV special Spike Lee and Company: Do It A Cappella).

The most recent significant "Zombie Jamboree" mutation happened in 1998. That year, the venerable British art-punk band the Mekons released their album Me, whose song "Gin & It" features the refrain "belly to belly, back to back/ Dancing, dancing 'round the square." Two other songs on the same record are built around that line; the decaying remnants of Lord Intruder's song groove onward, like The Walking Dead's Walkers at a dance party. And who's to say when the Jamboree may rise from the grave and once again devour our brains?