On Collecting Disaster Songs

A few people have asked how we found the songs in our collection.

My colleague, Joe Scanlon, who initiated the project, began with a thread on the excellent online folk music forum, Mudcat Café. The thread generated a long list of disaster songs, some of which were professionally recorded and commercially released songs (in other words, easy to find) and others were amateur songs (songs we would not necessarily have found otherwise). Another excellent online resource is the GEST Songs of Newfoundland and Labrador site, where I found numerous disaster songs.

We went through all the major Atlantic Canadian song books, as well as select labour songbooks, some of which included:

  • Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Industry (Korson, 1938)
  • Coal Dust on the Fiddle: Songs and Stories of the Bituminous Industry (Korson, 1943)
  • And Now the Fields are Green (O’Donnell, 1992)
  • Come and I will Sing You: A Newfoundland Songbook (Lehr & Best, 1985)
  • Haulin’ Rope & Gaff: Songs and Poetry in the History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery (Ryan & Small, 1978)
  • Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland (Greenleaf & Mansfield, 1933)
  • Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (Peacock, 1965, 3 volumes)
  • Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast (Leach, 1965)
  • Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia (Creighton, 1966)
  • Songs of Miramichi (Manny & Wilson, 1968)

There are, of course, many other books that also yielded disaster songs.

I have found that a solid internet search regularly reveals more recent songs. Amateur songwriters often post their compositions and home recordings on youtube, while other songs can be found on band websites, music social media (such as myspace and soundcloud), or simply referenced in posts. To conduct a search for hundreds of disaster songs requires careful record-keeping to avoid duplicating effort. At the same time, it is helpful to redo searches occasionally to catch any more recent compositions. The Ocean Ranger (1982) and Westray (1992) tragedies, for example, inspired quite recent songs.

As people have learned about my research, they have begun sending me songs they’ve discovered themselves. This has been especially useful for discovering very recent amateur song compositions circulating via social media, such as Facebook, that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to locate doing a standard internet search. For example, friends “shared” Facebook songs circulating within hours of the Miss Ally tragedy.

The disastersongs.ca website has also resulted in the discovery of additional songs, when visitors have written to me to let me know about songs not already on the site.

Finally, I discovered a few other songs via other means, such as when conducting archival research. For example, I discovered this Moose River composition while working at the Nova Scotia Archives and learned of a song about Westray (whose lyrics I have yet to track down) in a newspaper article I read at the Beaton Institute.

Have I overlooked any methods that might yield additional disaster songs? Do you know of any Atlantic Canadian disaster songs not currently listed on this site?


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