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The Hidden Roots Of ‘Hunger Games' Hit Song? Murder Ballads, Civil Rights Hymns

Jennifer Lawrence (in all black) stars as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1." (Murray Close)closemore
Jennifer Lawrence (in all black) stars as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1." (Murray Close)

Last week, “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence made headlines when “The Hanging Tree,” a song from the soundtrack to the latest edition to the movie series, “Mockingjay Part 1,” on which she is a featured vocalist, reached No. 2 on the iTunes songs chart.

Much was made of this feat because Lawrence is not known as a singer—in an interview with David Letterman last month, she described herself as a “a tone-deaf Amy Winehouse.” But her vulnerable, understated performance struck a chord with fans, who have streamed the song more than 4.8 million times, pushing it to the top of Spotify’s “Viral 50: Global” playlist.

As much credit as Lawrence deserves, the song itself is arguably the real star. “The Hanging Tree,” which employs lyrics based on those written by “The Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins, is set to an eerie tune penned by the folk-pop group The Lumineers and given extra dramatic heft by the unearthly orchestrations of composer James Newton Howard. Though the sing-songy melody feels more like a caricature of an Appalachian ballad than the real thing, it is nevertheless a recognizable riff on the genre. There is a satisfying aptness to the astounding popularity of “The Hanging Tree.” In a sense, folk songs were the original Top 40 hits.

The Appalachian inflections in “The Hanging Tree” are no accident. Lawrence’s character Katniss Everdeen hails from District 12, a coal-mining sector located in a post-apocalyptic Appalachia. And Collins’ lyrics, too, play with the tropes of the genre. “The Hanging Tree” is written from the perspective of a man accused of murder and hung as punishment. Appalachia’s songs are themselves descendants of ballads brought over by English and Scottish settlers, and hangings are a common occurrence in both traditions. Whether you owed a debt or had murdered your wife’s lover, hanging was a likely punishment in the ballad universe.

For Americans, murder by lynch mob—that tried-and-true act of citizen vigilantism by which white supremacists terrorized and dominated the black population in the aftermath of emancipation—is probably a more familiar context for hangings. And in the universe of “The Hunger Games,” in which the oppressed citizens of the fictional Panem live under the constant threat of execution by an exploitative upper class, that reference is all the more poignant.

In the novel, Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree” while out with a camera crew filming “propos,” the stories’ slang for propagandist television spots designed to promote the rebel cause. The song begins:

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.

The stanza repeats three more times, with the third line altered in each repetition: “Where the dead man called out for his love to flee;” “Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free;” and finally, “Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.” In Collins’s book, Katniss puzzles over the narrator’s story:

You realize the singer of the song is the dead murderer. He's still in the hanging tree. And even though he told his lover to flee, he keeps asking if she's coming to meet him. The phrase "Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free" is the most troubling because at first you think he's talking about when he told her to flee, presumably to safety. But then you wonder if he meant for her to run to him. To death. In the final stanza, it's clear that that's what he's waiting for. His lover, with her rope necklace, hanging dead next to him in the tree.

In the novel, the song never actually makes it into a propo and functions mainly as a window into Katniss’ past. But in the film, it transforms into a theme song for the rebellion. This is a shrewd choice on the part of the filmmakers. Whatever its literal meaning, “The Hanging Tree” has many possible subtexts. It expresses a yearning for freedom. It contains an invitation—to death, perhaps, or more specifically to martyrdom. As a cultural artifact co-opted and imbued with coded significance by the rebellion, it is a very plausible rallying cry. It has resonances, too, with African-American spirituals: in his 1857 memoir “My Bondage And My Freedom,” the former slave Frederick Douglass described a similar phenomenon:

A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of “Oh Canaan, sweet Canaan,/ I am bound for the land of Canaan,” something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant the North—and the North was our Canaan.

Of course, in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “The Hanging Tree” is far more than a vaguely subversive folk ballad. Though it bears little resemblance to the protest songs of the American civil rights era—those tended to be uplifting, rather than ominous—its genesis into a movement’s anthem invites comparisons to its protest brethren. Protest songs are, by design, made to move and motivate listeners, as is “The Hanging Tree” (at least in the film). The song contains a whiff of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-racist ballad popularized by Billie Holiday in which the bucolic image of a fruiting tree is shockingly transformed to evoke the horror of a lynching. And like “The Hanging Tree,” the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” originated in a folk song: the African-American spiritual “I Shall Overcome,” the lyrics of which were tweaked to conjure a more universal sentiment, probably by white activists for whom the hymn was a tool rather than a birthright.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee does a bit of editing to “The Hanging Tree” himself to help the song better suit the cause of his rebel comrades. “That line was originally ‘a necklace of rope’ and I had it changed it to ‘necklace of hope,’” he tells President Coin, the leader of the rebellion, while they are watching the propo featuring “The Hanging Tree” in “Mockingjay: Part 1.”

The change itself is not significant; rather, it serves to underscore the fact that the rebels are, in essence, running a public relations campaign. That PR campaign might be necessary, but it also comes across as deeply manipulative—of Katniss, and of its intended targets. And it reflects the film's own manipulations: a plot twist designed to make us uneasy about the rebellion. Coin's followers live in an immense underground bunker, wearing standard-issue jumpsuits, their movements tightly circumscribed. If they are free, they certainly don't look it.

In its cinematic incarnation, "The Hanging Tree" becomes a flashpoint for one of the story's central anxieties: the fear that even the purest cause may be irredeemably sullied by the compromises made in its service. In the quest to build a just society, is literally anything justifiable? When you consent to play the enemy’s game, can you not help but start to resemble the enemy?

There is a certain irony, too, in the massive commercial success of a song that owes its life and its meaning to a story that, by pitting a tyrannical and ostentatious upper class against an impoverished working class, displays more than a little discomfort with capitalism. But make no mistake: “The Hanging Tree” does exactly what it is designed to do, which is promote a movie, not a cause. “The Hanging Tree” may represent a win for the rebels, and even for Jennifer Lawrence, but with each successive iTunes download and every Spotify stream, the triumph of the “The Hunger Games” franchise only grows.

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