They say that whatever music you loved when you were 17, that's the music you will love the rest of your life. For Buddy Baker, who wrote the music for the Haunted Mansion, that would be 1935. For X. Atencio, who wrote the lyrics to "Grim Grinning Ghosts," it's 1936. That's just an interesting factoid to keep tucked away as you read what follows.
No one doubts that a big part of the Mansion's appeal is its superb musical scoring. The "Grim Grinning Ghosts" tune, written by Buddy Baker, appears in numerous arrangements throughout the ride, and however much it's rearranged and recast, it always sounds creepy. Magic!
The lyrics are not exactly Shakespeare. Actually, the title is Shakespeare. The phrase "grim grinning ghost" appears in line 933 of the epic poem, "Venus and Adonis."
"Hard-favour'd tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean,
Hateful divorce of love,"—thus chides she Death,—
"Grim grinning ghost, earth's worm, what does thou mean
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,
Who when he liv'd, his breath and beauty set
Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet?
Too bad it wasn't in line 999. Whether X borrowed the phrase consciously and deliberately or plucked it from a subconscious memory of his readings in Shakespeare—who knows?
Anyway, there is no point in pretending that the lyrics are poetry with a capital P. The graveyard jamboree scene (the only place you hear the lyrics sung) is not conducive to hearing a song with any kind of narrative. "Grim Grinning Ghosts" is calculated so that someone can hear a line here or a piece of a phrase there and still get the general idea of ghosts and ghoulies coming out to party. Except for the tagline at the end of each verse, you could almost put the rest of the lines in a hat and reorder them at random. [Edit 8/13: But see now the argument by T. Hartwell in the Comments.] The song is a laundry list of spooky phenomena, explained at the end of each verse as ghosts coming out to socialize. The arrangement is suitably rollicking and undeniably catchy:
Grim Grinning Ghosts
Incidentally, those singing busts have official names, which are on the blueprints and the film strips for each one (before things went digital). Left to right you've got Rollo Rumkin, Uncle Theodore, Cousin Algernon, Ned Nub, and Phineas P. Pock. We've already met Rollo and Phineas as tombstones in the original outside queue. "Cousin Algernon" is the name of a character in the Oscar Wilde play, "The Importance of Being Earnest." There was originally going to be a sixth bust, Aunt Lucretia, but they went with an all-male chorus, and Aunt Lucretia found useful employment elsewhere in the Mansion.
But let's get back to our topic. When it comes to comic songs about ghosts and goblins coming out to party, the first one that comes to most people's minds is probably "The Monster Mash," but long before that record came out the theme was popular. In fact, the heyday of such songs was the 1930's and 40's. If you listen to some of those, you're probably hearing the inspirational roots that led to GGG. Put another way, GGG is part of an established genre of novelty songs rooted in the 30's and 40's. At times, the lyrics to some of these songs come so close that you could almost suspect direct inspiration, but there are no smoking guns that I know of. Nevertheless, I've highlighted a few such lines in what follows. These songs are a real kick to listen to, whatever the excuse for doing so.
The Skeleton in the Closet
The Skeleton in the Closet
Swingin' at the Séance
The Headless Horseman
Now we're closer to home. This was sung by Bing Crosby in Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). Nothing at all against Bing, but I prefer this version by Kay Starr, released only a few months after the original Crosby version. Kay's lyrics are slightly different, as you can see, since I've printed the BC version. When she and those background singers get to "...what goes on in the nighhhhht" you know you got your money's worth for THAT record.
The Haunted House
That's the oldest one of the bunch (almost: see below). 1931, Ray Noble and the New Mayfield Orchestra. It's British, and there are a couple of pop culture references in there that are hard to decipher at this distance. "Slavey" is slang for any menial servant. What the flesh-pink tights are all about, I don't know [Edit: see comments]. The opening line is startlingly like GGG, and the structure of the song is similar: a litany of spooky phenomena with an explanatory line repeated at the end of each verse. No partying spooks in there, however.
This list could easily be extended by quite a bit. You can buy a whole CD full of these '30s-'40s novelty ghost tunes. But you get the idea. "Grim Grinning Ghosts" features a contemporary arrangement (for 1969), but it feels right at home with some of these old chestnuts, don't it?
Reader Melissa has directed our attention to a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty that may be the granddaddy of all these songs, and as it happens, it's a very good match to GGG in a number of ways. The laundry list of spooky phenomena followed by an explanatory final line. The topic? Ghosts having a midnight jamboree. The repeated lines at the end of each stanza explain that to us. This is a lot like GGG.
Taken from: Ruddigore: or, The Witch’s Curse (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1912)
We will revisit this song and go into greater detail in THIS post.