With more than 500 songs in my database now, I can see that there is a typical disaster song, what I call a “template.” A significant number of disaster songs follow this template pattern, which usually includes some combination of these features, often in the following order of appearance:
- date of the disaster
- place of the disaster
- description of the disaster
- number of dead
- sometimes a small number of victims are named
- description of rescue efforts
- reference to grieving widows and orphaned children
- assurances that the victims are with God and that the disaster was part of God’s plan
Not every “template” song has all of these features, and many include more than these elements, but these elements recur in various combinations.
I have found that the majority of pre-1950s disaster songs follow this template pattern, which can easily be observed by checking out the songs associated with earlier disasters. A good maritime example (although the order of elements is not as I’ve listed above) is this Greenland song. A good mining example is this Springhill 1956 song.
Disaster songs started to change after the 1950s. I suspect that they began changing for a few reasons, and I hope to write a future blog discussing this phenomenon further. For one, the popular music industry increasingly required unique rather than predictable songs. From the folk music revival of the 1950s emerged the singer-songwriter who began composing his or her own songs instead of singing traditional songs. A number of more recent disaster songs bear virtually no template traits. Sarah Harmer’s song about Westray is an extreme example.
But what surprised me was the number of post-1950s songs that still follow the template. In thinking about them, I realized that they tend to be composed by amateur songwriters. And really, this is no surprise. One of the ways that composers learn composition skills is through imitation. Popular music scholars have documented how a number of the world’s most innovative bands started by imitating other bands. So it seems to me that amateur songwriters learning their craft tend to write songs, whether consciously or not, using the template. Although some disaster songwriters told me that they were not familiar with any other disaster songs before writing one of their own, I believe that they may simply not remember having heard one, or perhaps wrote their songs using a more general but similar ballad template.
Are there other reasons for the template I’ve observed? Other traits that recur that I haven’t noted?