Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Singing from the roof tops about the disaster!

First of all may I wish a Happy New Year to one and all, I hope 2012 brings you prosperity and joy (obviously in a sustainable manner!)
A few months back I wrote about how humans have traditionally remembered disaster across generations (whether a war or a flood)  by using markers, monuments, and in more recent times websites. In that post I noted that one of the oldest forms of commemorating such events in a civilisation is through oral stories and folk songs.
Over the Christmas break I was talking to a friend about my blog and some of my thoughts on cultural memories of disaster. I brought up how the village of Fudai was spared from the destruction wreaked by the 2011 Japanese tsunami because of traditional stories of previous disasters passed down to their former mayor. Here in this small fishing port in Iwate prefecture the 51 foot wall, a "folly" of previous mayor Wamura, finally became a symbol of protection in the face of harm rather than a waste of taxpayers' money. Wamura's conviction which was fuelled by his experience in the tsunami of 1933 and tales told by his family of tsunamis from earlier times was finally (and sadly) vindicated.
Wamura's folly, now Fudai's saving grace - the 51 foot tsunami wall. Source - ©Associated Press
As the conversation moved onto broader notions of how myth, story, and of course song can transfer knowledge of important events between generations, my friend rather glibly stated that it was a shame this didn't happen anymore. He said, "When was the last time you heard a song on the radio about an actual flood rather than some whiney song about a flood of love."
True maybe, but they do exist. The second side of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album, the Ninthwave, is about drowning, and although never confirmed by the singer, seems to have been influenced by the Fastnet disaster of 1979. In the song And Dream of Sheep, Bush, sings; 
"Oh, I'll wake up
To any sound of engines,
Ev'ry gull a seeking craft.
I can't keep my eyes open--
Wish I had my radio."
A stanza that chillingly echoes the experiences of many sailors caught up in the storm that decimated the sailing race off the south coast of England. Having a radio aboard wasn't compulsory in British offshore yacht racing in the period, only becoming so in the aftermath of Fastnet 1979.
Much more explicitly commemorating a disaster is the song Canvey Island by the English band British Sea Power. The song commemorates the devastating floods which killed over 50 people in the community and over 300 nationwide in January, 1953. Below is a video of the band speaking about the song and performing it live on Canvey Island for the BBC's Countryfile show in 2008:
 British Sea Power on BBC Countryfile in 2008. Source © BBC
Whilst these songs may not be hits which trouble the likes of Rihanna and co. for radio airtime, my friend couldn't accept that they play a role in creating a cultural memory of disaster events. His argument went along the lines of well if most of the population haven't heard the song or aren't aware what it is about then it can't add to any tangible, useful, memory of events.
Yet this line of reasoning misunderstands how such cultural artefacts are absorbed into the milieu of a society. It only takes one grandparent to play Canvey Island to his grandchild who goes on to be mayor, or a flood engineer in the region to give such a cultural memory a "useful" purpose. Even beyond this remembering disasters can infuse into a society in much less tangible ways - stories of water lapping at the Houses of Parliament in 1928 persisted enough in the circles of government for the Thames Flood Barrier to be belatedly built in the 1980s.
I think there is a worry in the modern world that our lives are now so fast paced and transient, that important memories connected to a specific place are quickly lost. Those who worry of such loss of tradition and culture can today take reassurance that at least in some small way the avant-garde musicians of these fair isles are doing their best to commemorate such important events from our recent past.
If any readers know of any folk stories or songs which commemorate or warn of a disaster please let me know.


  1. I love this post and blog! Song about disasters are so legendary. Check out Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and slightly Stan Roger's Northwest Passage...Canada has loads of songs about the terrible things surrounding hubris and the environment. In fact, take a gander at this: http://disastersongs.ca/
    Keep up the great work!

  2. A friend of mine recently introduced me to this collection of American disaster songs, penned "when songs were tools for living", as Tom Waits succinctly puts it:


    Particularly interesting are the different treatments afforded to the Titanic disaster in American folk music. The event is often presented through the lens of racial politics, with the act of crossing the Atlantic one which has powerful moral and political overtones for the different groups who found themselves on the American side of the water.

    1. Thanks for the link Martin, it looks like a great collection, maybe when payday arrives I shall have to purchase a copy.

      It would be interesting to do a full comparative study of songs about one specific disaster. Disasters with several songs commemorating them, such as the Titanic sinking, seem to be few and far between.

      I guess it feeds into ideas i've written about previously on the perceived "cause" of the disaster. Technological disasters seem to get a more rigorous treatment by commentators, such as folk musicians.


  3. That's interesting. Do you think technological disasters get more treatment because there is often a blame figure involved (who is often then viewed through the lens of class politics and so on), or because of the tragic element of stories - an underlying sense of people striving for betterment through technology before everything 'falls apart'?

    1. Yeah I think there is an element that historically at least natural disasters were Acts of God, and whilst they were a time for mourning, community solidarity etc... they weren't particularly anyones fault. Whereas technological failure "must" be someones fault.
      Its a strange perspective really because I don't think any disaster is natural per se, if people were still nomadic a river flood would cause few (if any) major problems.

      Lots of academics have written on such topics, and things are starting to change, largely due to the influence of Hurricane Katrina - a devestating "natural" event that clearly didn't effect all who were in its path equally. Highlighting the actual technological, economic and social failings that lie under such devestationg loss.


    2. Indeed. If you've not already seen it, you should check out 'Treme' on the aftermath of Katrina and various cultural responses...


      Highly recommended!

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