Ann McGovern: “The Velvet Ribbon”

Like many pre-teens and teens, I played the same records over and over and over again. My poor mother! When I was ten, she had to listen repeatedly to The Beatles’ 1970 collection, The Beatles Again – and in later years, she was subjected to endless repeats of The Best of Bread, Eric Carmen’s self-titled album, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and perhaps the album that sticks in her mind most notably, Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains in Southern California.

But one recording that still haunts her, I am sure, is “The Velvet Ribbon.” This spoken word track was part of a 1970 Scholastic record, The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales. Read by Carole Danell, this version of “The Velvet Ribbon” was written by Ann McGovern.

Like “Bloody Mary” or “Hook Hand” or “The Ghostly Hitchhiker,” it’s an oft-told tale with many variations, especially in the color of the ribbon. Black? Red? Green? It doesn’t really matter: the outcome is the same for the woman every time. She warns her new husband that he must never remove the velvet ribbon from around her neck. But does he listen? Of course not! When the disastrous result occurs in Ann McGovern’s version, the woman wails, “I told you you’d be sorry!” Danell’s narration is powerful and chilling. I loved that line so much – “I told you you’d be sorry” – that I played it constantly.

Curious about the origins of this frequently told tale, I did some research (of course!). Many commentators believe that the tale started during the French Revolution. A notable written version of the tale is Washington Irving’s 1824 short story, “The Adventure of the German Student,” which indeed is set in Paris during the French Revolution.

Why the French Revolution? Well, there were many beheadings: heads did roll! (Listen to the story, and you’ll see the connection!) And according to one website, “some analysts have noted the French Revolution-era tradition for the widows and widowers of those killed by the guillotine to wear red ribbons and scarves around their necks.”

The history of choker necklaces is also fascinating. The StartUp Fashion website provides an interesting overview of the role choker necklaces have played in Native American, East African, and European traditions. In Europe as time went along, a black ribbon tied around the neck was often a signal that the woman wearing the ribbon was a prostitute. Buzzfeed’s article “The Secret (and Not So Secret) History of Choker Necklaces” notes that chokers were also popular in Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian cultures – and the article includes many images of choker necklaces through the ages right up to the present time.

If you grew up in the 1970s and want to rekindle your love of Scholastic books and records, you can buy a used copy of the Scholastic record at Discogs. A used copy of the accompanying paperback is available through Amazon.

As you get ready for all the ghosts and goblins tonight, you might want to read last year’s spooky offering: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which includes a recording of me reading the story in its entirely.

Happy Halloween!

Listen:Listen to the 1970 Scholastic recording of “The Velvet Ribbon,” written by Ann McGovern and read by Carole Danell. You can follow along with the text at the Dreadful Dreary website (scroll down to Version 2).