Songs of Calamity

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,

Of the big lake they called ‘gitche gumee’

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,

when the skies of November turn gloomy.

So, opens one of the great disaster songs, Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald . This is something I have been threatening to write for some time now, music, and disasters, two of my favourite topics (if you take out politics and sport).

Music plays such an important role in our community. It is ceremonial, it is ritual, it is entertainment, it is educational, it is historical, it is political, it is urgent, it is calming, it is angry, whimsical, serious, and it is pure joy. I’m not musical. I played clarinet badly for two years, drums for a couple of years, and more recently, I picked up the guitar (which actually came out of being marooned in a hotel room in Washington, watching Hurricane Katrina unfold, and thinking, this would be a good time to have a guitar) and play major chords, badly.

Music is one of the cultural aspects of disasters that we tend not pay much attention to. It is not well studied, other than the work of the late Joe Scanlan, and Heather Sparling. But there is a rich vein of material, which can help us manage the consequences of disaster, educate others about the events, and act as a catalyst for change. Equally, the great body of music exists for us to draw upon and be soothed. The great Radio National, before its music programming was gutted, took up the theme, with this fantastic program.

What is a disaster song?  Revell Carr from the New York Folklore Society identifies six characteristics

  • The song describes actual historical events: The song “The Lexington” uses specific dates, proper names, and place-names to establish historicity.
  • The event features significant loss of life: in this case, a hundred and fifty people.
  • Themes and motifs include unheeded warnings, human culpability, and divine retribution. Here, blame for the disaster falls on the ship’s careless owners.
  • 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. In this case the ballad’s title has the date, and the first verse specifies “Monday last at three o’clock.”
  • Voyeuristic and sensationalistic details give the song a tabloid quality: “The Lexington” provides gruesome details, such as the capsizing of the lifeboat, in the same way that today’s media use graphic film footage.
  • The song conveys empathy for the victims and the survivors: the singer expresses sentiments on behalf those who suffered

Based on this, while Hoodoo Gurus Tojo, uses Cyclone Tracy as a backdrop, probably wouldn’t qualify as a Disaster Song. Nor would, maybe, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks David and David River’s Gonna Rise, or Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood . But these all draw upon the disaster as inspiration for the story that is told, and create a sense of dread and urgency with their music. (perhaps not Tojo!)

The educational/historical aspects are fascinating. They form part of our remembering. These are what the Australian singer songwriter  Paul Kelly calls “newspaper songs”. The origins of the blues, and folk music was rooted in a pre or semiliterate tradition, where songs were sung to tell stories and pass on news, and knowledge. Tom Waits wonderfully curated People take warning!: Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs documents various songs from the folk tradition, Man v Machine (technological disasters ), Man v Nature (Natural disasters), and Man vs Man (murder). The sinking of the Titanic features heavily in this collection. As do mining disasters. It is a reminder of how unsafe the world was; trains crashed, mines collapsed, ships sank.  Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 a document of the most destructive American floods, when the Mississippi broke its banks in 1927, his lyrics skewering bureaucratic incompetence, with an acerbic description of the man in charge:

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand
President say “little fat man, isn’t it a shame?”
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land

I’m not sure if its the description of his physique or the clipboard that is more damning. Bill Frisell’s Great Flood, on the same topic, is more of a mediation and soundtrack to some extraordinary images.

Many mainstream music artists have recorded “ newspaper songs”. As mentioned above Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, The Bee Gees’ New York Mining Disaster, Mark Seymour’s Westgate, or Hunters and Collectors 42 Wheels (about the truck driver who drove his truck into a pub in Alice Springs, killing five people) or or Paul Kelly’s Maralinga Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds version of Tupelo, all fit the bill. On a very different note, thinking of educational, KRS-1’s Disaster Kit certainly has an “educational” element to it.

Music also has a ceremonial function. This has clearly changed over time, with a shift  from intense classical music, “mourning music” or Christian hymns being sung at memorial services, to a more secular form. Both John Adams and Steve Reich, modern US Composers created extraordinary pieces in response to 9/11 (On the transmigration of souls, and WTC 9:11) . Tasmanian Peter Sculthorpe dealt with the horrific events of the Port Arthur Massacre through the beautiful Port Arthur In Memorium. More recently, with 50th anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster, Karl Jenkin’s Stunning Cantata Memoria: For The Children hauntingly depicts the events and the recovery from the tragedy.  While the ceremonial seems to be the realm of the classical composers, Terence Blanchard, the jazz trumpeter, also approaches this with his A tale of God’s Will : Requiem for Katrina. And who can forget Paul Kelly’s Meet me in the middle of the air, a secular hymnal sung at the Sound Relief Concert, where 100,000 people were silenced in the cauldron of the MCG, where there is never silence. I also see Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising as ceremonial, in that it draws upon various stories to help us reflect upon the events, and more so the aftermath. To me, there isn’t too many more poignant lyrics about recovery from a traumatic event than;

Around here, everybody acts the same
Around here, everybody acts like nothing’s changed
Friday night, the club meets at Al’s Barbecue
The sky’s still, the same unbelievable blue

Nothing Man

The events of Hurricane Katrina, with the socio-political inadequacies about the response and recovery spawned probably the greatest protest songs since the Vietnam War. Public Enemy’s Hell No we ain’t all right, to me epitomises the anger of those left behind. Others include Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s River in Reverse, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s amazing reimagining of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On, Dr John and the lower 9 11’s The City that Care Forgot  , Ben Harper’s Black Rain, Ani DiFranco’s Red letter year, REM’s Houston, John Butler Trio’s Guv did nothing, and one of my favourite, Jackson Browne’s Where were you?  don’t hold back on what happened and who should be held accountable. Steve Earle’s Jerusalem was also written in response to the 9/11 attacks.

And then there is Treme, which is kind all of the above, with an amazing soundtrack. Music is the pallet around which people’s stories are woven, and it’s bloody good music. It was suggested to be by Celeste Geer, who made And then the wind changed, the story of Strathewen. I mentioned in passing the importance of music, then she said simply, “then you have to get hold of a copy of Treme”.

The therapeutic or comforting element is then so interesting, as it is so personal. Paul, who I met, and subsequent worked with on a project, after  Black Saturday, who lost his sister, brother in law, and nephews in the fire, spoke about the power of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which he was listening to on the day. We speak a lot about music, to this day. For me music has helped me manage to de-stress. It’s my self care routine, whether it is Cantillion’s Prayer for Peace (Bali) , Silver Ray’s No Need to Try Now (Bali), You am I’s Trying to kick a hole in the sky (Black Saturday) , Keith Jarrett’s Up for it (Boxing Day Tsunami), Explosions in the sky, Your hand in mine, (9/11), Paul Kelly’s Gathering Storm (QLD Floods), Bonobo’s Migration (Bourke St). These are all pieces of music or albums that take me away from where I am. I particularly used Silver Ray to try to get to sleep during the first 8 weeks after Bali. Sleep was not something that I came to easily, given what I was hearing and having to deal with.

Recently I have rediscovered my record player, and vinyl (a bit of a middle aged male obsession), and the beauty of actually sitting and listening to music. It’s depth, warmth, complexity, and simplicity. I cannot understand how people can’t possibly be moved by music. It is certainly in our core. It makes up a huge part of mine, and gives me the strength to do what I do.

5 thoughts on “Songs of Calamity

  1. Such a nice piece – you had me at the first line of Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad! It’s interesting that when you play & sing the songs, or just listen to them, they allow you to be angry, sad, melancholy. They provide both the vehicle and the excuse.

    Liked by 1 person

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