Disaster songs, and such – Part 1

Flood in Lewis County, West Virginia - ca. early 1930s - my mom with her back to her greatest childhood fear.

Flood in Lewis County, West Virginia – ca. early 1930s – My mom as a little girl, with her back to her greatest childhood fear. (see below)

In the Murder Ballad Monday board room over the last several months, conversations about the sinking of the Titanic resulted directly in two things.  First, we’ve started a playlist on the topic and we’re planning to curate it in a future post concerning music made about the day that great ship went down.  As well, and more to the point today, a notion began to circulate among our bloggers about giving a short list of their favorite disaster songs.  Given who we are, you can imagine we have much to share!  You can also guess that we won’t be abiding by the strictest definition of the genre. There is not only tragedy here, though there’s plenty of that too. Thus, “Disaster songs, and such.” Here’s today’s playlist in case you’re short on reading time…

If you’ve got some time to chill, read, and listen, today’s post should satisfy – part one of our effort, Cindy’s, Ken’s, and Pat’s choices.  Look for part two on down the line; but for now, let’s get on with it…

Stan Rogers: Singing at an Angle to Content – Cindy Hunter Morgan

Photographer unknown - from stanrogers.net

Photographer unknown – from stanrogers.net

My Uncle Stan introduced me to the music of Stan Rogers when I was in college. I loved “White Collar Holler,” a song that stuck in my head in the years after college when I sold nursery stock and worked in my grandparents’ orchard. (It took me a while to consent to working inside, and even the jobs I had later that required me to write budgets and strategic plans were more cream-collared than white.) Almost as appealing as that holler were Rogers’s songs of disaster. A few, such as “Fisherman’s Wharf” and “Harris and the Mare,” felt like true laments. They were meaningful and melancholy, but what I really responded to when I was 21 was “Mary Ellen Carter,” a song about a disaster, yes, but also a song that felt as triumphant and defiant as that holler I loved to sing with my uncle.

The Mary Ellen Carter, we’re told by Rogers, “went down last October in a pouring driving rain. The skipper, he’d been drinking and the Mate, he felt no pain.” It’s a narrative song – a story that could freight pure solemnity, but doesn’t. Rogers braids tragedy with spirited defiance without ever letting misfortune tip the balance. There’s no doubt this is a serious song, and yet the tone is triumphant. There are the “laughing, drunken rats who left her to a sorry grave,” but Rogers’s voice is stronger than those rats. It’s victorious. The difference between the misfortune and the music is an angle we can almost measure. Rogers often sang at an angle to content, and it’s the angle, in part, that makes his music so satisfying.

Here’s “Mary Ellen Carter” (lyrics – on Spotify

If you’re still sitting at your desk when that song is over, listen to the “White Collar Holler!”

Cataclysm and Compassion in “Halifax” – Ken Bigger

I considered Dan McKinnon’s “Remember Me” for this post. In some respects, it inspired this blog. I also considered James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters.” I sing it, and the story that inspired it also led Norman MacLean to write Young Men and Fire. That book’s question of what turns disaster into tragedy is a recurring question for me here. I’ve discussed both songs before, though.

Campbell Road, Halifax, January, 1918 - Gauvin & Gentzel Nova Scotia Archives Photo / negative: N-201

Campbell Road, Halifax, January, 1918 – Gauvin & Gentzel Nova Scotia Archives Photo / negative: N-201

Instead, I’ll offer Chuck Hall’s “Halifax.” Like “Remember Me,” “Halifax” is about the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917. Set to the tune of another Maritimes folk song, “Oh No, Not I,” Hall’s song tells of a Boston boy who travels to Halifax with his physician grandfather to provide relief. He relates the catastrophe, but also the compassion and courage that followed it.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in Harper’s in 2005 that “disaster makes it clear that our interdependence is not only an inescapable fact but a fact worth celebrating.” She does not allege that disasters are to be desired, but that they uncover what we desire.  Expanding on this thought in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, she writes, “The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrates that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.” (Citations from Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2016.)

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