Saturday, May 08, 2010

People Take Warning

Flooding, tornadoes, an explosion, a mine disaster, unrest at the stock market, a high-profile murder, and a mass transit accident. I suppose this could be a description of news headlines of the last 30 days, but it could also be a list of events that led to the creation of popular songs in the first part of the 20th Century. A few years ago, a 3-CD box set was released with a collection of such songs.

For a stretch of several decades, whenever a disaster struck in this country, or even a sensational event such as an unusual murder, it would become the basis for a song. When the south was struck by flooding, it became the inspiration for countless blues numbers. Folk singers drew their inspiration from similar events. Woody Guthrie became renowned for his Dust Bowl ballads, but his most chilling song just might be 1913 Massacre, about the deaths of of 73 mine workers and family members at a Christmas party.

Even into the early 1960s, the folk genre was still drawing from "current events" for song subjects. Bob Dylan writes in his autobiography of picking up the newspaper for inspiration during his Greenwhich Village days, with the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" perhaps being the greatest product of this method. But as time went on, "disaster songs" faded from public consciousness. Sometimes a protest song would pop up in the wake of a specific event, such as CSNY's "Ohio." Once in awhile you'd get a cover of one of those older songs, devoid of the context of the original composition, such as "When the Levee Breaks" by Zeppelin. And as perhaps a singular example of a disaster song of the 1970s, Gordon Lightfoot had a hit with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

But as the years went on, disasters and tragedies kept occurring, and they weren't being made into songs. The Challenger explosion would have resulted in a number of songs had it occurred in the 1920s, but not so in 1986 (though a space shuttle explosion in the 1920s would have been a bit of an odd happenstance, I suppose). An event the scale of 9/11 did inevitably result in a handful of songs, perhaps most notably Neil Young's "Let's Roll," but by Hurrican Katrina, the most notable song was Randy Newman's re-make of "Louisiana 1927," about the previous worst flood in that state's history.

To understand why those songs have gone away, we probably need to understand why they flourished in the first place. Perhaps in a time when news travelled slowly, or at least slowly relative to today, they were the last vestiges of the oral tradition, hearkening back to the days when raconteurs and lyrical poets would travel around villages singing the news. But perhaps they served a psychological function as well. While an individual might be able to come to grips with a problem by talking it out with a therapist, a mass tragedy might require a larger scale for "talking it out." These songs were the way that a nation of people could deal with the senseless, the tragic, and the unfathomable.

And though the songs have gone away, this need hasn't. We've just shifted our gaze to the more visual and the more immediate. Many motion pictures now depict monumental events of the recent past in an intensive and immersive manner, and our 24-hour news cycle, cable news channels, and now even Twitter and Facebook provide the outlet that music used to provide for us to "work through" unexpected occurrences. And it hasn't helped that the music industry has made artists non-prolific. When you are supposed to wait a couple of years between albums, it is hard to rush into the studios and cut a song.

But although we have found cultural substitutes for the "disaster song," I don't think that these substitutes need to be replacements. I think there is still a need (and if bean counters must hear it, I'll add "a market") for this defunct genre. As stultified as radio playlists are today, it would be a challenge for most artists interested in attempting to write such a song to "fit the format." But there is one format that I could see embracing the possibilities. I think contemporary country could be a fertile ground for the re-emergence of the topical disaster song. And there is no better time than now. The last 30 days have given country musicians ample material, including some occurrences in their own capital.


Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

Hip Hop has a pretty strong ongoing tradition of this. Several songs about the Rodney King riots -

And Amadou Diallo (including the Bruce Springsteen song)

8:28 PM  
Blogger Heather's Perspective said...

I agree with your argument :) I do believe this type of song writing did and does provide comfort to the victims of these tragedies and also, a sense of unity. There is no doubt in my mind that it has evolved to other media sources, just as many other things have.
I think that it is definitely still around, just not as mainstream. For example Thrice wrote a song called Broken Lungs. I believe it is about 9/11, but since they are not in the mainstream spotlight only fans would know this information.
I think that these songs will come back into style, just like bell-bottoms did, it all comes full circle sometime.

10:54 PM  

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