The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a Hunger Games prequel focusing on young President Coriolanus Snow, not only tells the origin story of the formidable villain, but also of many of the elements of the world that Hunger Games fans know — including the origin of the most iconic song of the series: “The Hanging Tree.”
Within the context of the original Hunger Games books, “The Hanging Tree” is an old, haunting District 12 folk song, sung from the perspective of a hanged man. In the modern times, it’s used as a rallying cry for the districts, and unifies the people of Panem in their rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss eventually sings it in Mockingjay, the last book of the trilogy, when a rebel asks her to deliver a tune for the song-replicating mockingjay birds and she remembers the old folk song from her childhood. The haunting song becomes the anthem of the Rebellion.
In a powerful scene in the movie, fleshing out an event that’s just mentioned in passing in the books, power plant workers sing in unison as they blow up a dam, effectively cutting power off to the Capitol.
No one in the original books knows the exact origins of the “Hanging Tree.” It’s just something that is so integrated with District life that they all take it for granted, a small staple that ends up uniting all the rebels. But the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes details the specific events of just how the song came to be — but in doing so, makes it lose some of the power it originally held.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes]
The origin starts off subtly. Coriolanus, now stationed in District 12 as a Peacekeeper, witnesses a public execution of a man named Arlo who accidentally killed three Peacekeepers while trying to sabotage coal production. At the hanging, Arlo calls out to his wife, telling her to run. He’s cut off before he can finish his sentence, dying almost instantly, but the jabberjays — bioengineered birds who can replicate overheard sentences — begin to mimic his voice over and over again.
As an event itself, Arlo’s hanging could’ve just been a subtle nod to the song that would later define the rebellion, but the actual genesis of the song is explained in Songbirds and Snakes. In a scene late in the book, Coriolanus finds Lucy Gray, a former District 12 tribute who’s become his new romantic interest, strumming a guitar and singing the first lines of the song. Coriolanus wonders if the song is meant for him, since the lyrics invite someone to meet under the tree.
He’s not entirely wrong. When Lucy debuts the song, Coriolanus realizes that it’s written from the perspective of her former lover singing out to her, saying he’d rather them both be dead together than have her reject him. But she sings it directly to Coriolanus, whose own love of Lucy has only grown more possessive and jealous by the day, and he declares that her former lover doesn’t matter because she’s his now.
When it comes to the context of the song in the original books, it might add some irony in the fact that the rebels’ song speaks so directly to President Snow. After all, the song was written by the woman he loved and the possessive relationships she found herself entangled in. But tying Snow so intimately to District 12 already heightens his hatred of Katniss and makes his immediate disdain for her believable. Adding the Hanging Tree to the pot feels like overkill.
What made the song’s original usage so powerful was that it was a homegrown District tune repurposed for a rebellion. It was taking something unintentional and turning it into an emblem of the Districts, much like how the hybrid mockingjay, a cross between the jabberjay and mockingbird that no one planned for, became a symbol. Attributing the song’s origins to Snow means losing some of that edge, even if it makes for some sweet irony.