The Complicatist: Love and Mining Disasters

Songs about disaster, dread and oh yeah that love thing

by Gordon Campbell

By the age of ten, it had dawned on me that there were an awful lot of songs about love and romance. After an anxious night of flicking around the radio dial though, the real bombshell realization sank in – every single song on the radio was about love! People were either falling excitedly in love, or feeling sad about not being in love anymore. Love was saturating the airwaves, and to my ten year old mind it was silly and creepy and had to stop. Was love really the only thing that adults felt was worth singing about? That, and sinking the Bismarck.

There are of course, a few songs that aren’t about romantic love, and this month’s column is dedicated to them – just in case there are any ten year olds out there still looking for refuge from the love epidemic. Quite a few of these songs are about disasters. Lets start with the mining songs.

1. Wilf Carter : “Moose River Gold Mine” / Merle Travis : “Dark as a Dungeon” The Moose River mining disaster of 1936 in Nova Scotia had a lot of the same ingredients as the copper mine rescue in Chile last year. (Apropos of Pike River, it also underlines there are no happy endings to coal mining disasters) At Moose River, the cave-in came without warning, desperate attempts were made to reach the trapped men, hope had been all but given up and then…Wilf Carter, Canada’s first major country music star, will tell you the whole story. Carter also performed under the name of Montana Slim and died in 1996, two weeks short of what would have been his 92nd birthday. You can find out the full Moose River story on its own webpage right here. Check out the photographs of the tiny borehole drilled through to the trapped men, referred to by Carter in his song.

IMO though, the most poetic mining song would still be “Dark As A Dungeon” by Merle Travis, and below is the original 1947 recording. The image of the dead miner peering down from his heavenly home and pitying the miners digging his bones says it all about the links between hard work and chronic poverty.

2. “Big Bad John” /”Cajun Queen” by Jimmy Dean. Miners tend to be larger than life figures, and this 1961 pop hit celebrated the biggest of them all. Big John stood six foot six and weighed 245, and generously gave his life to save his fellow miners. The lesser known follow up song (“Cajun Queen”) tells how Big John’s true love rescues him by going down into the pit – and planting a couple of kisses on his cold blue lips (yuk!) of such unimaginable hotness that Big John comes storming back to life. Let it be noted that the radio sensitivities of the early 1960s meant that Dean’s version, which originally ended “ At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man” had to be recalled, and replaced with: “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man.”

3. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot/ “Wild Gilbert” by Lovindeer
Another Canadian disaster song. Gordon Lightfoot’s epic song about the iron ore freighter sunk on Lake Superior is hilariously awkward, yet kind of touching all the same. The lyric mimics the famous Longfellow poem about Hiawatha…. and for sheer awfulness, it is hard to beat those opening lines :

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

Like the weather, it only gets worse. Try for instance, to sing this :
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

Or maybe this segment is the real killer, especially the first four awesomely clunky lines :
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

Well, yes it could. Years later, the Butthole Surfers used to sing a fearsomely lugubrious version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as a way of clearing the room at the end of their sets. On the other hand, smiling broadly in the face of disaster calls for a different set of skills. Hurricane Gilbert was one of the worst natural calamities in Caribbean history and it caused major loss of life and property – yet inexplicably, Lovindeer’s huge hit song about the disaster is a wildly happy singalong that treats the whole thing as a hoot from start to finish. Very hard to imagine a similar song emerging in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake.

4. Working In the Plantation by Mr Lif /Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford Smiling bitterly in the face of havoc can be the only way to go. Luckily, most of us don’t get to confront epic storms and earthquakes, but the daily work routine can be almost as damaging to body and mind. Boston hip hop artist Mr Lif picks up from where the Office Space movie left off, with this funny-yet-extremely angry day dream about life on the minimum wage. The lyric is incredibly

Step into the work place with my work face

Wince at my time card cuz I’m scarred

Mad cuz I sacrifice my day and it gets me

A trifling hourly wage of six fifty, nifty

Now I’m off to slave quarters

With a whole bunch of other people’s sons and daughters

Working so they can be mothers and fathers

Laboring real hard, hoping the boss offers

More petty cash to his bums and paupers

Kissing his ass cuz they hoping they prosper

Here’s the math:
You work a thirty a day, away

The government takes a thirty a check, correct

You go home and drink cuz you don’t get

An ounce of respect, and your spirit is wrecked

Life is a gift to be enjoyed, every second every minute

It’s temporary, not infinite

Yet I find myself looking at the clock

Hoping for the day to fly by,
And I ask myself “Why?”

Brilliant. Of course, the real grandaddy of pop songs about work routines is still “Sixteen Tons “– co-written by Tennessee Ernie Ford and Merle Travis in 1946, and a huge hit for Ford some ten years later.

5. The Dying Soldier : Buell Kazee / “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus
War has inspired thousands of songs….Buell Kazee’s 1928 song “ The Dying Soldier” is a strange and haunting goodbye to life and its blessings, as the soldier prepares himself for the Heaven to which he hopes he’s bound. Given the way things have turned out on Earth though….the stoic sadness of Kazee’s singing and banjo accompaniment seem to anticipate that things may turn to crap in the afterlife as well.

A couple of years ago, the New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus released a concept album called The Monitor, based on the Civil War sea battle between the two ironclad ships, the Monitor and the Virginia (aka the Merrimack) The album’s opening track ranges from 1860s jigs to Springsteen to punk in pretty diverting fashion :

6. “Chumming the Ocean” by the Archers of Loaf / “A Dream of the Sea” by the Renderers

The sea has always been a pretty good metaphor for love : ie, tidal, unpredictable and swept by the occasional monster wave that capsizes everything in its path. These two songs are different though – they’re more about the sea as a metaphor for free-floating dread and nightmare. Archers of Loaf and its lead singer/writer Eric Bachmann made some of the most distinctive post grunge albums of the 1990s, and have recently reformed. “Chumming the Ocean” is a piano solo piece by Bachmann, and it’s a spooky, wavering one-of-a-kind epic. Youtube contains only a live version – this is not the definitive original, which is on the All The Nations Airports album – but is still pretty terrific. “Dream of the Sea “ is like an insistent dream after-image. Brian and Maryrose Crook made this level of altered consciousness their specialty.

6. “Joshua Gone Barbados” by Eric von Schmidt /”Work Song” by Oscar Brown Jnr. Work songs again. The best version of “Joshua Gone Barbados” is by Tom Rush – not because of Rush’s singing, but because of the liquid guitar backing by Bruce Langhorne, who did similar service on Bob Dylan’s “Corinna Corinna” and was the flesh and blood inspiration for “Mr Tambourine Man” – but that’s another story. What makes Von Schmidt’s song so special is the sorry tale it tells – of a strike leader who inspires the sugar cane workers he leads, and then abandons them. “ They’re beating Sonny with a cutlass/they beat him to the ground…” Joshua, meanwhile, has gone Barbados – where he is staying in a big hotel, and thanking his lucky stars he survived the events he set in motion.

Oscar Brown Jnr’s “Work Song” was almost a genre to itself – a would-be hipster jazz piece that leaps backwards all the way to the work gangs. Hearing someone as cool and articulate as Brown singing the word “ gwine” is pretty amusing. The only similar jazz/country blues concoction I can think of is Mose Allison’s peppy 1957 track “Parchman Farm.”

7. “The Road Goes on Forever” by Robert Earl Keen / There’s a Love Knot in My Lariat” by Wilf Carter. Robert Earl Keen’s brilliant story-in-song is as taut and concise as a Raymond Carver short story – and while extremely romantic, it is about an even older virtue : gallantry. Sonny’s gallantry after all, is what initially gets him acquainted with his one true love Sherry the waitress, and the same quality finally sees Sonny make the ultimate sacrifice on her behalf. Offhand, “The Long Black Veil” is the only comparable “ He died, so that she would not be dis-honoured” song that comes to mind.
Yet in recognition of the pervasiveness of romantic love, lets finally go back to Wilf Carter, for a fairly weird love smetaphor. Namely : “There’s A Love Knot in My Lariat.” Lucky girl.