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Now Let Us Mourn Together: A Brief History of Disaster Songs
November 9, 2013 6:42 PM   Subscribe

"Welcome to ‘Disaster Songs in Canada.’ This website serves as a vehicle to present the Canadian disaster songs that three academics have collected and are currently studying....Incidents in songs range across time, from the pre-confederation era, such as the New Brunswick blaze of 1825 (“The Miramichi Fire,” credited to John Jardine), to the 2009 Cougar helicopter crash off Newfoundland (“Fall into the Ocean,” by Mark Frost)." Come with me down the rabbit hole to the strains of songs about mine collapses, sinking ships, broken bridges, train wrecks, earthquakes, floods, and more.

What makes a song a disaster song? Revell Carr, writing in the Journal of New York Folklore, lists these six characteristics:
1. The song describes actual historical events...
2. The event features significant loss of life...
3. Themes and motifs include unheeded warnings, human culpability, and divine retribution...
4. Stock formulae—most commonly the date of the tragedy, which usually appears at the beginning—are used both as mnemonic devices and as keys signifying the performance frame...
5. Voyeuristic and sensationalistic details give the song a tabloid quality...[and]
6. The song conveys empathy for the victims and the survivors: the singer expresses sentiments on behalf those who suffered.
[Please note: Essay discusses events of and reaction to 9/11/2001.]

Mining, maritime, and airline tragedies comprise the bulk of the Canadian collection. (Interestingly, an early inquiry into Canadian disaster songs on the Mudcat.org site drew a number of responses, including a song about the Montreal massacre.)

If you'd like to dip into the American tradition, go listen to the cheerfully-titled "A Collection of Disaster Songs and Murder Ballads." These have also been collected under the name "People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938." From the liner notes:
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the Depression gripped the Nation. It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds. – Tom Waits, from the Introduction
The wreck of the Old 97? The Baltimore fire? The Titanic? All there. Because, of course, "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down" (and a little more history, for those who may remember that tune from summer camp).

Disaster at sea? The Wooden Boat Forum has it covered.

And what about bridges? Perhaps with the shade of William McGonnegal's "The Tay Bridge Disaster" (quite possibly the worst poem ever written, and here performed, with musical accompaniment, by Billy Connolly) hanging over them, various artists have commemorated the Silver Bridge disaster.

On a drier note, Woody Guthrie sang of the "Dust Storm Disaster" (lyrics) and of the light failing for one "Dying Miner," trapped underground with more than a hundred other souls. Guthrie also sang of watery fates in "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and in "Los Angeles New Year's Flood."

Bonus California disaster songs, commemorating the Great Quake of 1906.

Need more recommendations? Try the Centers for Disease Control's disaster songs countdown, or The Association for the Study of Literature & the Environment's suggested listening.

I leave you with a lyric from Woody Guthrie's "Los Angeles New Year's Flood": "We knew not in the morning / This whole wide world would grieve." But we have long been brought together in sad song. Come on up for the rising.
posted by MonkeyToes (43 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
WAITAMINUTE... Why is there NO mention of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?!? Even if it was "the pride of the American side" of Lake Superior, you don't get more Canadian than Gordon Lightfoot!!

Sorry, FAIL.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:49 PM on November 9, 2013 [29 favorites]


At the risk of spousal-linking: The No. 26 Mine Disaster.
posted by bonehead at 6:54 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh wow, this is a great post. It immediately put me in mind of "Coke Oven Brook" by James Gordon, a song I got on a free folk sampler CD sometime around 2000. The song is about brutal mining pollution and its toll on a Nova Scotia town. It's actually very well done. I learned from it. The lyrics just got so mournful --

That toxic tar filled with PCB's,
God, we used to chew it to whiten our teeth,
Now most of us have been taken with the cancer . . .


-- I would have to bite the inside of my mouth to stop the church-giggles.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:02 PM on November 9, 2013


The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is mentioned on the first page of the first link of the post.

(And may I add that the Edmund Fitzgerald porter, from Cleveland's Great Lakes brewery, is a tasty way to commemorate the disaster.)
posted by chinston at 7:04 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is awesome! I love these kinds of songs. My favorite is The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy, which legitimately made me cry.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:06 PM on November 9, 2013


But NOTHING on the Maritime Disasters section for the ol' Edmund Fitz. The section is 'still under construction', but 53 other linked events/songs with nothing for the one that'd take about 30 seconds to research (and would be the first thing a lot of people would look for)? Lightfoot's Edmund Fitzgerald was what introduced me to the whole idea of "Disaster Songs" (I was one of approximately 7 people to buy the record in the L.A. area - it went Top 5 in the US almost solely on sales in the Great Lakes Region).
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:16 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Anglophone songs, you mean. French Canadian sailor's laments, "Les Complaintes", are noticeable by their absence. It starts out simple and slow, and the slow tempo is kept to the bitter end, like breakers washing over the prow of a grounded freighter, where disaster is plied with tragedy and built up into catastrophe, until the horror of what happened gives way, never ceasing in the song's cadence and progression, to a list of the victims and the families affected.

There is often a musical saw involved, as a theremin would be gauche.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:19 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Heh. I didn't know about that page, but having done my time in the folk music trenches, I found a couple of songs that I played on. Thanks.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:22 PM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've always thought these were a great way to teach history.
Not to mention the horrors of management corruption and pollution.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:23 PM on November 9, 2013


Really cool stuff from the good people at CBU. Seems to be lacking my fave- Stan Rogers' The Mary Ellen Carter.

Also I think of "Un Canadien Errant" about the personal disaster of exile.
posted by beau jackson at 7:24 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


i got a canadian "nautical disaster" right here

and we all know they end up in fiddler's green

(i can't resist it - just can't ...)
posted by pyramid termite at 7:24 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Really cool stuff from the good people at CBU. Seems to be lacking my fave- Stan Rogers' The Mary Ellen Carter. yt

I gather they are sticking to non-fictional disasters. And while it is a rousing good song, no one seems to die in it and the titular ship -- spoiler alert -- gets refloated, so even calling it a disaster song is dubious.

That being said, the page seem weirdly incomplete. Under "mining disasters," I thought for sure I'd find James Keelaghan's Hillcrest Mine, which every Canadian folk singer I know seems to think is the bee's knees.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:30 PM on November 9, 2013


ah! of course Mary Ellen Carter doesn't fit their description. Good points RB.
posted by beau jackson at 7:43 PM on November 9, 2013


There was a brief mention of Titanic. Incredibly, there was a disco version of My Heart Will Go On that was all over FM radio here in summer 1997. My girlfriend back then called it the "dancing to disaster" song.
posted by crapmatic at 7:44 PM on November 9, 2013


So the Mary Ellen Carter doesn't fit, but now I kind of want to write a disaster song called The Mary Ellen Carter Strikes Again.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:01 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Atlantic Blue by Ron Hynes might be too poetic and abstract to be a traditional disaster song, but it's almost certainly the best one written about the Ocean Ranger. Bruce Moss's Your Last Goodbye is more literal and probably fits the parameters better.
posted by peppermind at 8:03 PM on November 9, 2013


The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is mentioned on the first page of the first link of the post.

Also further down the front page of the blue!
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:10 PM on November 9, 2013


The twenty-nine working dudes who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald

Michael E. Armagost 37 Third Mate Iron River, Wisconsin
Frederick J. Beetcher 56 Porter Superior, Wisconsin
Thomas D. Bentsen 23 Oiler St. Joseph, Michigan
Edward F. Bindon 47 First Assistant Engineer Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Thomas D. Borgeson 41 Maintenance Man Duluth, Minnesota
Oliver J. Champeau 41 Third Assistant Engineer Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Nolan S. Church 55 Porter Silver Bay, Minnesota
Ransom E. Cundy 53 Watchman Superior, Wisconsin
Thomas E. Edwards 50 Second Assistant Engineer Oregon, Ohio
Russell G. Haskell 40 Second Assistant Engineer Millbury, Ohio
George J. Holl 60 Chief Engineer Cabot, Pennsylvania
Bruce L. Hudson 22 Deck Hand North Olmsted Ohio
Allen G. Kalmon 43 Second Cook Washburn, Wisconsin
Gordon F. MacLellan 30 Wiper Clearwater, Florida
Joseph W. Mazes 59 Special Maintenance Man Ashland, Wisconsin
John H. McCarthy 62 First Mate Bay Village, Ohio
Ernest M. McSorley 63 Captain Toledo, Ohio
Eugene W. O'Brien 50 Wheelsman Toledo, Ohio
Karl A. Peckol 20 Watchman Ashtabula, Ohio
John J. Poviach 59 Wheelsman Bradenton, Florida
James A. Pratt 44 Second Mate Lakewood, Ohio
Robert C. Rafferty 62 Steward Toledo, Ohio
Paul M. Riippa 22 Deck Hand Ashtabula, Ohio
John D. Simmons 63 Wheelsman Ashland, Wisconsin
William J. Spengler 59 Watchman Toledo, Ohio
Mark A. Thomas 21 Deck Hand Richmond Heights, Ohio
Ralph G. Walton 58 Oiler Fremont, Ohio
David E. Weiss 22 Cadet Agoura, California
Blaine H. Wilhelm 52 Oiler Moquah, Wisconsin

Blue collar deaths are overly romanticized in my opinion. That had to have a been a fucking nightmare.
posted by vapidave at 8:25 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


i got a canadian "nautical disaster" right here

No, goldenrod is for coma fantasies!

This one was real, though.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:39 PM on November 9, 2013


I was working for the company responsible for the Westray disaster when it happened but at a different mine.
posted by islander at 8:42 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interestingly, the link on the mining disaster page for the No. 26 Mine Disaster is in fact my recording from Metafilter. How very inception...
posted by LN at 8:56 PM on November 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


As Vapidave's list points out, there were no Canadians on the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was an American ship (although it did sink in Canadian waters.) More to the point, people lamenting the omission of various songs might take a closer look at the home page, which states "We are limiting our scope to songs of Atlantic Canada since close to 80% of the Canadian disaster songs discovered so far are from that region." Thus the Edmind Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, or the Hillcrest Mine in Alberta, fall outside their purview.

Also notice that even though the text starts out talking about "Disasters [sic] Songs in Canada," the home page is titled "Disaster SongsDisaster Songs | The Disaster Song Tradition of Atlantic Canada." Which perhaps indicates that the "three academics" involved should have let some of their students develop the site.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:29 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I recall a song about the fate of Elliot Lake and the impact on locals of the uranium mine the the area. Although I did not realize that disaster songs had become an entire genre.
posted by GuyZero at 9:41 PM on November 9, 2013


As Vapidave's list points out, there were no Canadians on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Sometimes Canadians can't help but mine America for its disasters in our hunger to write more disaster songs. This also gave us James Keelaghan's Cold Missouri Waters about the Mann Gulch Fire, so we can count ourselves lucky.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:47 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like Frank Black's St. Francis Dam Disaster.
posted by Quonab at 10:00 PM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a fabulous post. My favorite disaster song is "Wreck of the Dandenong".
posted by sculpin at 11:01 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Paging Stompin' Tom! Paging Stompin' Tom!

The Bridge Came Tumbling Down
Fire in the Mine
posted by mazola at 11:39 PM on November 9, 2013


Nancy White wrote a song about Elliot Lake in her 1982 album, “What Should I Wear to the Revolution,” called, appropriately enough, “Elliot Lake.” I have been trying to find sources for some of her earlier works—I had cassettes that I purchased way back when, but they seem to have disappeared—but haven’t been able to find anyone who has that album in stock.
posted by kentk at 12:40 AM on November 10, 2013


This is a fabulous post. My favorite disaster song is "Wreck of the Dandenong".

"I dream of you, I dream of sleep, I dream of being warm"

So simple, but so evocative of that fruitless struggle in the teeth of a storm.
posted by adamt at 4:25 AM on November 10, 2013


The first one that jumped into my mind was Harry Chapin's 30,000 Pounds Of Bananas, which doesn't fit the format strictly because only one person died, which I don't suppose counts as a "significant loss of life."

I am sure the truck driver would disagree, as it was quite significant to him.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:47 AM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


So the Mary Ellen Carter doesn't fit, but now I kind of want to write a disaster song called The Mary Ellen Carter Strikes Again.

If you do, I promise I'll sing it.

And I feel like this thread is incomplete without bringing up Brooke Lunderville's The Wreck of the Crash of the Easthill Mining Disaster.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:25 AM on November 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


More to the point, people lamenting the omission of various songs might take a closer look at the home page, which states "We are limiting our scope to songs of Atlantic Canada since close to 80% of the Canadian disaster songs discovered so far are from that region."

They have a quixotic application of their standard then: almost the first one I sought out (to see if it was there) was Brian Morton's "The Empress of Ireland," if only because I played on it. A ship built in the Scotland, on a voyage from Quebec City to Liverpool, colliding with a Norwegian vessel in the the St. Lawrence River near Rimouski. And the song in question was recorded by a couple of Ontarians in Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton. I am having trouble seeing the Atlantic focus there. (Although to be fair, I think we played it in Halifax one time during a gig at Dalhousie.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:46 AM on November 10, 2013


Canadian disasters? Is there one about smoking crack in a drunken stupor?
posted by notme at 8:07 AM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thinking more about this since last night, it's kind of a shame that folksong isn't a more prevalent way of telling a story of a disaster. There have been piles of modern-day Canadian disasters that would fit, I think, like airplane crashes, train derailments and oil spills/propane explosions. Megantique would be right up there, along with Flight 182, Arrow Air 1285, and the Sunrise propane incident, just to name a few.

Folksongs have always focused on the human toll in a disaster, where the media and the companies involved tend to focus more on economic factors and/or blame assignment. It's been my understanding for years that folksongs were the way people reported on the loss of their loved ones, when the powers that be would not place much importance on that aspect of the disaster. Hence the apparent "romanticization" of a blue collar worker's death - it's not a romanticization so much as it is a reminder to all who listen that innocent hardworking people lost their lives in these disasters.

How come we don't do this anymore?
posted by LN at 9:21 AM on November 10, 2013


How come we don't do this anymore?

Social media has almost completely overtaken the function that event-related folksongs (disasters, crime sprees, murders, the strange and ridiculous/comedic) used to have - telling the story with personal perspective/commentary, and passing it along to additional communities.
posted by Miko at 10:50 AM on November 10, 2013


You're probably right, Miko. Interestingly, one of the reasons stated by the Disaster Songs researchers was to see what ways reporting on events in traditional songs differ from how such events are reported on using modern media, including social media.

But honestly, we don't...sing to each other the way we used to. We don't make music to each other the way we used to. We don't make art to each other the same way anymore. There's youtube, but there's this whole angle about making money from art that puts the skids on our ability to use artistic forms to just express ourselves to each other. It's one of the reasons I posted a bunch of music here on metafilter - it's a way of expressing myself and starting a conversation that feels more comfortable to me in some ways than one liner quips on a post (no offence to habitual quippers). There is a part of me that mourns that fencing in of creativity.
posted by LN at 11:35 AM on November 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


modern media, including social media.

I wouldn't conflate the two - I don't quite see where these researchers are saying they include social media, at least on the website itself. Many folklore scholars see an important distinction between edited/institutional media and social media driven by individual transmission within informal social networks - important criteria that make something "folk." There is a big difference, for instance, between the way something like the Newtown shootings were represented in news outlets and the way they were discussed, memorialized, and made the subject of artistic production by individuals responding online outside of the parameters of a formal institution. The fact that formal institutions also use the tools of social media confuses this a lot, but when you look at what functions folklore used to fulfill, much of that is now fulfilled online.

But honestly, we don't...sing to each other the way we used to. We don't make music to each other the way we used to.

Well, to some degree this is a function of individual choice. I make music, and apparently you do too. And I sing to people, and people sing to/with me, and I am part of many musical communities. Maybe you are too - you love Irish music, maybe you play in sessions. To some degree, we all have to determine whether this is something we want to be part of our lives or not. If you do want it to be, you can begin to uncover the very much alive and real musical culture that is still all around us, though not usually in mass media.

I think it's also false to imagine a time when there wasn't a continuum of professionalism within music - many of the musicians who seem most steeped in folk idioms were in fact professional - they played for audiences, played for dances, played for in-kind trade, performed in exchange for something. Taking money for the creative work of music isn't what makes something a traditional music or not. The opportunity to make money at music also doesn't kill traditions. (If anything, I've made much more money playing traditional music than I ever have playing my own singer-songwriter stuff).

I'd say if there is a difference it's that individual music-making without the assistance of electronic transmission is just not as central to vernacular culture any more. But we still have vernacular culture, and it still does all the same things it once did (shares news and views informally, entertains, bonds communities, spurs creativity) - just with different tools.
posted by Miko at 1:01 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


My dad would always sing "Springhill Mining Disaster" when we were driving home late at night, and that lovely deep descent on "the roads that never saw sun nor sky" is one of my earliest memories.
posted by tavella at 4:59 PM on November 10, 2013


OK. We've established that "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was legitimately left off this list, due to the project's terms of reference. However, I'd still like to share The Dandy Warhols' (please stay with me here) sprawlingly brilliant noise rock/shoegaze cover of the song, "The Wreck."

Best thing the Dandys ever did.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:39 AM on November 11, 2013


Oh, I used to know how to play 'Wreck of the Old 97' on guitar. It was my introduction to disaster commeration songs. I haven't thought about that song in ages.
Thanks for posting this, MonkeyToes!

Also, being a Michigander, I have been hearing 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' since November first. It gets played on the radio a lot here in November. I still like the song but I'm a big Lightfoot fan anyway.
posted by Gadgetenvy at 8:50 AM on November 11, 2013


My dad refers to "The Wreck of the Edmund" etc. as "the ulitmate party-killer." It's an OK song but I would personally be fine with never hearing it again. No disrespect to the victims and families, but it is grandiose and repetitive. I also like Gordon Lightfoot but like many of his other songs much, much better.
posted by Miko at 9:05 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Agreed. The lyrics aren't all that great, either. Hardly any of it scans or rhymes.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:22 AM on November 11, 2013


WAITAMINUTE... Why is there NO mention of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald yt ?!? Even if it was "the pride of the American side" of Lake Superior, you don't get more Canadian than Gordon Lightfoot!!

Indeed, as the big wreck songs go, it was bigger than most, with a beat and a lyric well metered.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:49 AM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


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