I am excited to be participating in a virtual meeting with scholars around the world working on questions related to music during a time of Covid-19. I am grateful to Niels Chr. Hansen and Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann for organizing it and for inviting me to participate.
I offered to speak about the differences I’m noticing between the Atlantic Canadian disaster songs that I’ve been studying for the past few years and the songs that I’ve been seeing emerging about coronavirus. While we might think of both as “disaster songs,” the patterns are intriguingly different. I am still in the early stages of exploring this topic and I have sketched out some rough generalizations here. I realize that there are likely to be exceptions to everything below as well as blurry boundaries between categories. The lines I’m drawing are only meant to be suggestive and inspire further thought and discussion.
Nature of the Disaster
We can roughly divide disasters into two types: sudden onset disasters and slow onset disasters. Sudden onset disasters happen quickly and end quickly. There is a clear point of origin and conclusion. We can further subdivide sudden onset disasters into unintentional and intentional disasters. Most weather disasters are unintentional sudden onset disasters (e.g., hurricane, earthquake, tornado), as are most occupational disasters, such as explosions in a coal mine. Intentional sudden onset disasters would include mass murders. While a war has many characteristics of a slow onset disaster, many of the most terrible moments in a war, such as battles or dropping an atomic bomb, are more like sudden onset disasters.
Slow onset disasters are disasters that take a long time to evolve and may have no clear point of origin, they evolve gradually, and they come to a slow conclusion. Slow onset disasters include famines, droughts, and pandemics like coronavirus. I have written more about disaster definitions here and here.
I have focused on unintentional sudden onset disasters in my work on Atlantic Canadian disaster songs (profiled on this website), and I wonder to what extent the different nature of the disasters involved explains some of the other differences I’ve noticed between Atlantic Canadian disaster songs and coronavirus songs. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use “disaster songs” as a shorthand to refer to songs about unintentional sudden onset disasters and “coronavirus songs” to refer to songs related in some way to our current pandemic and Covid-19.
Amateur vs. Professional Songwriters
It seems likely that people have always written songs about tragic events, whether as amateurs or as professionals. There are examples of both disaster songs and coronavirus songs by amateurs and professionals.
By “professional” songwriters, I’m referring to people who make the majority of their income as musicians. Some professional artists are adding coronavirus references to their existing hit songs and others are recording new coronavirus songs. Many YouTube artists (artists who make money by virtue of having large numbers of YouTube subscribers), such as The Holderness Family and Chris Mann, have written coronavirus parodies of hit songs. But a large number of people making coronavirus songs appear to be amateurs and semi-professionals. After all, coronavirus restrictions mean that many of us have an unprecedented amount of time to explore songwriting, recording, and production.
When it comes to disaster songs, professional songwriters used to race to be the first to release a song about an event, as documented by folklorist Neil V. Rosenberg (2000) with respect to songs about two coal mining disasters in Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1956 and 1958. Country music scholar Richard Peterson talks of the “event song trend” of the 1920s, which included commercial recordings of songs circulating orally as well as newly-written disaster songs.
But as new forms of news media developed, including the radio, television, and the internet, music stopped having a role to play in disseminating news. The music industry increasingly demanded newly-written, unique songs that could be copyrighted, as well as “universal” and timeless lyrics that would appeal to the largest audience possible over the longest period possible. Artists began taking time to craft distinctive songs about tragic events — sometimes years. And so we get songs like “Atlantic Blue” by Newfoundland songwriter Ron Hynes which he wrote seven years after the 1982 Ocean Ranger tragedy, and Sarah Harmer’s song “Westray” about a 1992 coal mining disaster in Nova Scotia, but there are few clues in the lyrics to tie them directly to these events.
While many professional artists write songs about disasters, I’ve been surprised not only by how many amateurs continue to write disaster songs, but also by their willingness to share those songs in sometimes highly public contexts, such as YouTube, Facebook, and other social media channels. It is likewise the case that innumerable coronavirus songs have been produced by amateur songwriters. Moreover, there is a strong connection between the commercial music industry and amateur songwriting, as amateur songwriters borrow melodies from and parody copyrighted songs, while professional artists record traditional songs or write songs that follow patterns established in traditional circles (see “song lyrics,” below). It is clear that the music industry has not eliminated a very human desire to process significant life events through songwriting, and to connect with others by sharing those songs.
Insiders vs. Outsiders
One might think that most disaster songs would be written by people directly involved in or closely connected to an event. And that is indeed sometimes the case. Susan Walsh, for example, wrote a song while waiting to hear if her brother was one of the miners killed in the Westray explosion (he was not). Within 24 hours of being rescued, Maurice Ruddick wrote some verses about his experience being trapped underground for 9 days after a “bump” at the Springhill, Nova Scotia coal mine in 1958. Mark Frost wrote a song in honour of his friend who died in a helicopter crash in 2009.
But these are the exceptions. The majority of disaster songwriters write from the outside looking in. While many songwriters may be from the community or general region where a disaster occurred, many others are not. Randy Crane, for example, wrote a song about the 2009 Cougar helicopter crash even though he didn’t personally know anyone killed. But he felt connected by virtue of living and working in Newfoundland and by being from a community where the parents of one of the victims were also from. John Archbold was interested in coal mining songs because his father had been a miner. He was moved to write a song about Maurice Ruddick after learning of his story but otherwise had no personal connection to Ruddick or anyone else affected by the 1958 Springhill disaster.
Coronavirus is different in that we are all implicated. No one is unaffected by coronavirus. We are all “insiders” with common experiences such as mask-wearing, self-isolation, and social distancing, even as other experiences vary, such as losing a job or working from home and whether we contract the virus ourselves or know someone who has died from it.
Many Atlantic Canadian disaster songs, by both amateur and professional songwriters, are in the style of broadside ballads. Broadside ballads were extremely popular in the British Isles from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and settlers brought the tradition with them to North America. Broadside ballads were written to disseminate the news of the day. As a result, they are typically narrative songs that emphasize the factual details of an event, including the date, the nature of the disaster, its location, the number of victims, and sometimes the names of victims or rescuers. Historically, broadside ballads included some fatalistic reference to God (such as describing a disaster as God’s will, expressing the belief that the victims are now with God in heaven, or imploring listeners to “make right” with God since no one knows when their time will come).
The broadside ballad’s lyrical “template” makes it possible for songwriters to write new songs very quickly, and they are often set to existing melodies, including melodies of existing disaster songs. A good example is Ontario country singer Jack Kington’s song about the 1958 Springhill disaster, “Miracle at Colliery Two.” A more recent example is Mary Garvey’s song about the Ocean Ranger. It was the very first song she ever wrote, and she wrote it the morning after after hearing a night filled with tragic newscasts. It has all the characteristics of a “contemporary broadside” (as Rosenberg calls them) and is set to the tune of another Newfoundland disaster song, “The Southern Cross.”
I characterize another significant group of disaster songs as “reflective songs,” songs that are more poetic and lyrical in nature than factual. My sense is that, until recently, they were typically written some time after a disaster, when the immediate shock and horror over an event has muted. It is fairly common for significant anniversary dates to inspire new disaster songs, and these are more likely to be reflective in nature. An excellent example is Brian Vardigans’ “Springhill (These are Green Hills Now,” which he wrote in 2008 about the 1958 Springhill disaster. His song is really about what has happened to Springhill since the disaster rather than about the disaster itself.
I have been intrigued to note that it seems to be increasingly common for songwriters of all types and experience to write more reflective songs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. This is particularly evident in the songs that I have collected about the Nova Scotia shootings that occurred just last month, as well as in the songs about the 2018 Humboldt bus crash. I am not sure yet whether songwriters have written such reflective songs soon after a tragedy for a long time but they were simply not documented, or whether this is a more recent trend. It is possible that the internet is influencing songwriting both because it provides easy access to more models and because it is is easy to find songwriting strategies and prompts that may be moving people away from the broadside ballad pattern.
Whether we’re talking about contemporary broadsides or more lyrical disaster songs, they focus on events. Coronavirus songs, by contrast, typically do not. They rarely tell the story of where the coronavirus originated, names places, offer dates, or reel off statistics. Instead, coronavirus songs seem mostly to focus on experiences. Coronavirus songs talk about our lived experiences, from struggles to find toilet paper in stores to the need to wash hands, from social distancing to professors’ struggles to suddenly start teaching remotely. There are also coronavirus songs that serve as “public service announcements,” songs that teach the public about appropriate actions and behaviours.
Coronavirus songs are typically aimed at the living whereas disaster are almost always about the dead, telling stories of death, honouring the deceased, and offering sympathy to the bereaved.
Although I haven’t spent a lot of time with a lot of coronavirus songs (and I’m certainly not able to generalize about songs not written in English), I’ve been intrigued to note that a great many have been humorous in nature. By contrast, I’m not sure I could point to a single humorous disaster song. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 people globally have died of coronavirus now with heartbreaking situations emerging in several places, including Italy and New York, and yet there are remarkably few songs lamenting those deaths. Of course, folklorists such as Peter Narvaez and Trevor Blank will tell you that we have long used humour to cope with death. Is it a matter of “we can laugh or we can cry” and we choose to laugh? Can we attribute the humour to the fact that we are still in the middle of the pandemic? Perhaps the sad songs will come later. Or is it the fact that millions of people have contracted Covid-19, billions have been affected by measures put in place to limit the coronavirus’s potentially devastating impacts, but only a (thankfully) small percentage of people have actually died — and so the experiences of the masses are reflected in proportionately more songs than the experiences of the heartbroken?
A common feature of both disaster songs and coronavirus songs is their quick and spontaneous emergence. In the case of sudden onset disasters, it seems that the shock and horror of the news, as well as the size and often senselessness of the tragedy, compels people to write songs. This is particularly evident when we consider the more than twelve songs I collected within 48 hours about the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia. Over and over again, songwriters posted about being wordless and yet finding the words to sing, about feeling compelled to write something, and offering their songs as acts of comfort to the bereaved.
Although the coronavirus pandemic is a slow onset disaster, coronavirus songs emerged very quickly in the days and weeks after the first strong measures taken to control the pandemic were taken. While coronavirus songs are rarely (if ever?) written in the style of a broadside ballad, I sense something of the broadside competition to be the first songwriter to get a song out to the public. There was an early rush to make clever versions of pop hits, aiming for high viewership numbers in a short period of time. The most successful of these have millions of views. Other songs take advantage of key news moments, as in the case of “Speaking Moistly,” in which an artist used autotune to create a song from the humorous and gloriously strange but evocative turn of phrase that Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used in one of his daily updates to the nation. It garnered more than a million views within just a few days. At a time when musical tours and festivals have all been cancelled, artists are finding new ways to reach audiences and make money, and producing music about the coronavirus quickly seems to be one of them.
People are motivated and inspired to write songs for many reasons. I have already mentioned some of the reasons that people have been writing disaster songs and coronavirus songs. In the case of disaster songs, people often write out of shock and horror in the wake of a tragedy. I have written about how disaster songs may help with the grieving process, and I am currently writing a book about how they function as a form of intangible memorialization at a time when death culture is changing and vernacular memorialization is rapidly increasing.
At this time, I don’t see coronavirus songwriting as an act of memorialization. Coronavirus songs are more likely to be about entertainment, education, connection, and alleviating anxieties. It is clear that some people are writing coronavirus songs for commercial reasons. Others may be writing them because they have the time to do so while stuck at home, perhaps out of interest and perhaps sometimes out of boredom. And others still write them to give voice to a common experience, connecting with others at a time of physical separation. And, of course, because people are complex, there may be something of all of these motivations — and others — at play behind a single song.
Coronavirus Song Research
At first glance, it might seem like coronavirus songs would have a lot in common with disaster songs. They both have had a tendency to emerge quite quickly and spontaneously in large numbers in response to circumstances that can be characterized as disasters. And yet there are some intriguing differences regarding the identity of the songwriters, subject matter, typical lyrics and motivations.
How might my work on Atlantic Canadian disaster songs provide a unique perspective on or insight into coronavirus songs? It might make sense to approach the coronavirus output as slow onset disaster songs, assuming that they are distinct from sudden onset disaster songs. Given the lengthy evolution of slow onset disasters, it might also be worth considering whether there are phases of coronavirus songs. We started with light-hearted songs when coronavirus seemed like a novelty causing an inconvenient shift in our daily lives. And then there were reports that the light-hearted singing stopped when the heartbreak of many deaths and an overwhelmed health-care system overtook places like Italy. What will coronavirus songs look like after six months? a year? longer? And, of course, there are no doubt coronavirus song variations based on cultural differences, as well as different experiences of the pandemic socially and economically, as well as individually. There are a number of ways I could approach coronavirus songs, although I’m still figuring out whether I even want to conduct research on coronavirus songs, or whether I will leave that work to others with new and different perspectives.