What Is the Origin of Mockingjay’s Haunting Song, ‘The Hanging Tree’?

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Photo: Lionsgate

"I knew she didn't love the idea of singing, but I didn't realize how nervous she was until when we started the first take, and she was in tears," said director Francis Lawrence about his star, Jennifer Lawrence, who sings a song in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I called "The Hanging Tree." Katniss wants to show off the singing abilities of the Mockingjays, who could not only mimic Rue's four-note birdcall but have "song voices [that] are different from their whistles." She sits alongside the film crew who escaped the Capitol to help the rebel efforts of District 13. Pollux, an Avox who cannot speak because the Capitol deemed him a rebel and had his tongue cut out, asks her to sing something to the Mockingjays. She begins:

The song's lyrics:

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 up at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.

The song was written by The Hunger Games' author, Suzanne Collins, and the Lumineers (of "Ho Hey" fame) were called in to provide a haunting melody to match Collins's lyrics. And as you also may have noticed in the lead-up to release, Jennifer Lawrence sounds lovely. Lawrence's singing voice sounds a lot like her speaking voice, pitched low with a slight crack. The mournful song soundtracks a propaganda video Plutarch Heavensbee creates in an attempt to motivate Panem's Districts.

But what is "The Hanging Tree," and where does it come from? Hunger Games readers might remember a deeper, darker history to the song, which Katniss's father originally taught his children before their mother found out and banned it completely from the Everdeen household:

Making us necklaces out of scraps of old rope like it said in the song, not knowing the real meaning of the words. The tune was simple and easy to harmonize to, though, and back then I could memorize almost anything set to music after a round or two. Suddenly, my mother snatched the rope necklaces away and was yelling at my father. I started to cry because my mother never yelled, and then Prim was wailing and I ran outside to hide.

But just as kids do, when someone tells you to forget something, it immediately turns into the only thing you can remember. Katniss begins to directly associate the song with her father. And she's not the only one: After Peeta returns from the Capitol with his brain all scrambled, the song is the first thing he connects to his old life in District 12. Haymitch explains to Katniss: "[Peeta] heard [your father] singing it one day when he came to trade at the bakery. Peeta was small, probably 6 or 7, but he remembered it because he was specially listening to see if the birds stopped singing ... It’s the first connection to you that hasn’t triggered some mental meltdown." Despite its creepy lyrics, the melody gives Katniss comfort and even helps cure Peeta of his Capitol-implanted hatred. She even learns to twist the song's meaning to find solace in its lyrics. Here's how she first interprets the song:

At the beginning, it sounds like a guy is trying to get his girlfriend to secretly meet up with him at midnight. But it’s an odd place for a tryst, a hanging tree, where a man was hung for murder. The murderer’s lover must have had something to do with the killing, or maybe they were just going to punish her anyway, because his corpse called out for her to flee. That’s weird obviously, the talking-corpse bit, but it’s not until the third verse that “The Hanging Tree” begins to get unnerving. 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.

"I guess my mother thought the whole thing was too twisted for a 7-year-old," Katniss thinks, using the song's origin story as a metaphor for her own experiences in the Hunger Games: "I used to think the murderer was the creepiest guy imaginable. Now, with a couple of trips to the Hunger Games under my belt, I decide not to judge him without knowing more details." Is this when Katniss is finally able to cement her feelings for Peeta? Where she relates to Hanging Tree's "dead man," who would rather his love hang next to him than live in the world? Later, during the final battle within the Capitol walls, Peeta urges Katniss to kill him for fear that he might kill another member of their team because of his reprogramming. He can't be left behind, either — they'll surely capture and torture him. Katniss hears "The Hanging Tree" once again: "For some reason, the last stanza ... starts running through my head. The one where the man wants his lover dead rather than have her face the evil that awaits her in the world."

But surely, it's a song of revolutions past, as hinted by Kaniss's mother's swift quashing. And Collins hasn't hit on anything particularly new here:  Rebel tunes echo throughout history it's hard not to hear influence from a song like "Strange Fruit," sung famously by Billie Holiday (and later adapted by Kanye West for "Blood on the Leaves"): "Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black body swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." Inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of two black men in Indiana, it was originally a poem written in 1938 by a Jewish union activist and schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol. After it was set to music, Holiday's version quickly became a Civil Rights movement anthem in the late '50s and '60s.

When Katniss sings "The Hanging Tree" to Pollux and the Mockingjays, she notes that she hasn't sung it "out loud for ten years, because it’s forbidden," implying that it's not only banned in the Everdeen house, but in Panem proper. Perhaps her father sang it around town to subtly alert other members of District 12 that he was revolutionary, willing to do whatever it took to stand up to the Capitol and create change. "They say he murdered three," the song chants, its hearsay language confirming the often-manipulative accusations of the Capitol. This rebel song was concocted not about a desperate lover, but a revolutionary whose plea was for his neighbors to follow him toward freedom, no matter the cost. Even if it meant they might end up hanging by his side.