"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.]
, 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"
) 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