Death has a very special place in American culture. America grew as a frontier nation in the constant shadow of death. Americans love dead heroes, from George Washington to Elvis Presley. Music and movie stars like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline have made much more money since their deaths than during their lives. Even to make it onto an American postage stamp you have to be dead for at least ten years. Every October 31st, on Halloween, normal American children dress up as ghosts, mummies, ghouls and vampires and make a party out of death.
–from Life in the USA, a “complete guide to American life for immigrants and Americans.”
Jean Dinning, who died last month, penned the 1959 rock and roll hit, “Teen Angel,” with her husband, and her brother recorded it. It’s sung from the perspective of a young man whose car breaks down across train tracks. The man and his girlfriend escape, but she’s forgotten the high school ring he gave her in the car and in the midst of retrieving it is hit by the oncoming train and killed. The morbid subject of the song led many US radio stations to ban it, but it strongly resonated with the death-obsessed youth of America, reaching #1 on the US charts and inaugurating the Teen Coffin Song or “Splatter Platter” genre.
The roots of the genre likely stem from the country/western death ballad, an influence that can be heard in such specimens as Jody Reynolds’ rockabilly “Endless Sleep” (an ultimately non-tragic precursor) and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” Another common characteristic is the theme of star-crossed lovers, as evidenced in Johnny Preston’s mildly offensive “Running Bear.”
And many of the coffin songs tap into the rebellious image cut by such American teen icons as James Dean, who crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955. Regarding this feature of the genre, R. Serge Denisoff argued in a 1983 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture that the cultural significance of these novelty songs inheres in that association between rebellion and death: “in the early 1960s seemingly the only viable form of rebellion for many adolescents was withdrawal in running away or in death.” A questionable thesis, I’d say, that hardly pertains to “Teen Angel,” but it’s interesting to consider tracks like “Leader of the Pack,” “Dead Man’s Curve” or the Beach Boys’ “A Young Man is Gone” in that thematic context.