“It was the year of 1900…” – The Galveston Flood
Disaster songs don’t inhabit the same space as murder ballads, but at MBM we find that they intersect in some profound ways with our genre of choice. Recently we spent a couple of weeks exploring our own and our readers’ curated choices. In the first of those two posts, I promised a week devoted to one song particularly that was too big for our list – “Galveston Flood,” also known as “Wasn’t that a Mighty Storm.” This is that week, and I think you’ll find the music powerful. Indeed, power is appropriate in evoking an understanding of the event this family of songs commemorates. It was the worst natural disaster in American history. Except for one key point, the details in the song are historically accurate. “It was the year of 1900…”
The detailed story of the disaster is easily found online, and summarized directly below, but this is a blog about music. As you might imagine, people turned to song to deal with the aftermath of what became known sometimes as the Galveston Flood. I got my first taste of such art from Tony Rice.
The island town of Galveston, “The Jewel of Texas,” boasted nearly 40,000 residents on the morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900. That evening, a hurricane, with sustained winds approaching 150 mph, made landfall off the Gulf of Mexico directly over the town. Before midnight, the eye passed over the harbor. Sunday morning brought clearing skies and a nice breeze rolling off the water, but in the span of half a day, the storm delivered more death and destruction than Americans had seen since their Civil War. No one knows the human toll for sure. Estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000, but the most common figure puts it at about 8,000 souls. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, for a contemporary comparison, killed between 3,000 and 6,000 people.
It was a cataclysm of unimaginable proportions, partly because Galveston lacked a seawall. City leaders and the majority of town residents deemed it unnecessary when a group of concerned citizens proposed the measure after the now-lost town of Indianola, 100 miles down the coast, was obliterated by hurricanes in 1875 and 1886. That double-barreled blast wasn’t enough to spur action. Issac Cline, director of the Galveston Weather Bureau, argued in the newspaper in 1891 that “It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.” Galveston had endured intact every storm the Gulf threw at it by the end of the 19th century and, bolstered by ‘expert’ opinion, people saw no reason why that wouldn’t continue to be the case.
Short term preparations were also lax. The Weather Bureau in Galveston received warnings of a strong approaching storm as early as September 4, as the hurricane moved over Cuba. Cuban forecasters predicted correctly that the storm would track west, but American forecasters believed it was already turning to ultimately track northeasterly, back over Florida and away into the Atlantic. Few people evacuated the western Gulf Coast. To be fair, no one could foresee the magnitude of what was about to happen, given the technology at the time. To this day, the storm ranks as the third most destructive of all recorded Atlantic hurricanes.
“Death came a-howling on the ocean…”
Powerful songs, like powerful storms, do not randomly pop into existence. Certain conditions allow for their creation and fuel their strength. Whence came this one?
I heard “Galveston Flood” soon after Rounder released Tony Rice Sings and Plays Bluegrass in 1993. I recall my two immediate reactions, the most obvious of which regarded the stunning blow of the lyrics in combination with Rice’s masterful picking and singing. More specifically, I clearly remember feeling that the song’s horsepower came from the disconnect between the terrifying narrative and the uplifting drive of Rice’s performance. I assumed that Rice had ‘grassed up’ an otherwise somber (and probably rather boring) bit of obscure historical song craft.