Disaster Songs

Disaster songs. Disasters have inspired many ballads, including quite a few composed in Canada.

Disaster songs. Disasters have inspired many ballads, including quite a few composed in Canada.

Fires and Explosions

The great Miramichi fire of 1825, which raged over one-fifth of New Brunswick destroying several towns and driving 1500 people from their homes, led to "The Miramichi Fire," the words credited to John Jardine. This song survived in oral tradition in New Brunswick and Maine.

A later ballad, "The Halifax Explosion" (Helen Creighton's Maritime Folk Songs, 1962), described the holocaust of 6 Dec 1917 when two ships - one laden with explosives - collided in the city's harbour. The explosion laid waste a large area of the city and killed some 1200 people.

Mining Disasters

Two mining disasters in Springhill, NS, inspired ballads. The first, an explosion in 1891, was described in "Springhill Mining Disaster" and in the Acadian song "La Complainte de Springhill" (Maritime Folk Songs). The second disaster trapped 12 men in a mineshaft for eight days in 1958. One of the men was Maurice Ruddick, "The Singing Miner," who, by singing and leading them in song, helped his companions to keep up their spirits. He later described the experience in verses to be sung to the melody of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." The accident also led the folksingers Peggy Seeger (an American) and Ewan MacColl (UK) to write "The Ballad of Springhill."

Other mining disaster songs include "New Waterford's Fatal Day," Wilf Carter's "Rescue from Moose River Gold Mine," and Harry Adams' "Draegerman Bold."

Rockslides; Bridge Collapses

A rockslide from Turtle Mountain, which in 1903 buried much of the little town of Frank, Alta, was the subject years later of Robert Gard's "Ballad of the Frank Slide" (BMI Canada 1949) and Stompin' Tom Connors' "How the Mountain Came Down."

The collapse of the Second Narrows bridge in Vancouver in 1958 inspired Connors' "The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down."

Losses on the Seas and Great Lakes

An old sailors' song, "Lady Franklin's Lament" (thought to be written in the UK), recalled the loss of the Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic in 1845. Even more numerous disasters befell cargo and passenger vessels. Among the multitude of shipwreck ballads are those describing the loss of the Atlantic, the Eliza, the Florizel, the John Harvey, and the Southern Cross. Almost every ship that went down inspired a ballad and dozens survive in tradition. Kenneth Peacock gives more than 30 in his section "Tragic Sea Ballads" (Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, Ottawa 1965), and Creighton, Elisabeth Greenleaf, MacEdward Leach, and W. Roy Mackenzie give others. A few had happier endings with lives saved through the bravery of seamen or landsmen, as in "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie" with words by Maude Roberts Simmons, "The Loss of the Jewel," and "The Flemmings of Torbay." "The Wreck of the Julie Plante," which supposedly took place on Lac St Pierre (part of the St Lawrence River), was sung widely by lumberjacks in the Great Lakes area. Stan Rogers wrote two well-known fictional songs in this tradition, "The Mary Ellen Carter" and "The Wreck of the Athens Queen."

Ballads describing disasters on the Great Lakes include "The Loss of the Schooner Antelope," "The Loss of the Maggie Hunter," and "The Foundering of the Asia." These songs can be found on Songs of the Great Lakes (Folk FE-4018). Additionally, Jack Kingston and Earl Heywood composed "The Noronic Disaster." Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 recording of his "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (10 Nov 1975 on Lake Superior) became very popular. Lightfoot earlier composed "Ballad of Yarmouth Castle" about a cruise ship fire in the Caribbean.

The story of the loss of 48 Newfoundland sealers in 1898 is told in "The Greenland Disaster." The loss of the Titanic also inspired at least two compositions by Canadians.

Bruce Moss's "Your Last Goodbye" and Cal Cavendish's "The Loss of the Ocean Ranger" tell of the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger off the coast of Newfoundland 15 Feb 1982.

Train and Air Disasters

A train accident at Montreal's Windsor station in 1909 prompted Henri Miro and Raoul Collet to write "La catastrophe de la gare Windsor." A 1942 train disaster at Almonte, Ontario led to country singer Mac Beattie's "Train Wreck at Almonte." Eddie Coffey's "Peggy's Cove Disaster" refers to the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in 1998.

Floods and Storms

Murray McLauchlan's "Red River Flood" (1983) tells of Manitoba's watery trial. The great ice storm of 1998 in Ontario and Quebec is recalled in Paul Henry Dallaire's "El Nino."

Terrorist Attacks

The 11 Sep 2001 terrorist attacks on the US inspired many musical compositions, including Fred Eaglesmith's "America's at War," Hildegard Westerkamp's Breaking News, and Martin Gotfrit's Flights.

Instrumentals and Concert Works

Disasters in Canada also have suggested titles for instrumental compositions, including F. Dulder's Seven Bells Waltzes (G.F. DeVine 1877), written in reference to the Miramichi fire, and Morris Manley's The Ottawa Fire (R.S. Williams 1900). The Westray mine disaster is reflected in incidental music to the play Westray: The Long Way Home.

Hildegard Westerkamp wrote École Polytechnique in memory of the 14 women murdered 6 Dec 1989 at the University of Montréal.

See also Occupational songs; Trade Union Songs; "Tears are Not Enough"; Wars, Rebellions, and Uprisings; Halifax Explosion; Disasters; Frank Slide


Further Reading

  • Rogers, T.B. "The new balladeers," Canadian Folk Music Bulletin, vol 16, Oct 1982

    - "The Southern Cross: a case study in the ballad as history," Canadian Folk Music Journal, vol 10, 1982

    Rosenberg, Neil V. "The Springhill Mine disaster songs: Class, memory and persistence in Canadian folksong," in Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of Edward D. Ives, ed P. MacDougall and D. Taylor (Orono, Maine 2000)

    "Cancountry Babylon," Country Music News, June 2002

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