A quick look through this site might suggest that I am only collecting English-language disaster songs, but that is not the case. If you look carefully, you’ll find songs in French, like “Chanson sur le Désastre de Baie Ste Anne” and several songs about the loss of the Empress of Ireland. I expected to find French songs since there are many Acadian communities in Atlantic Canada. The sinking of the Titanic was so globally famous that it resulted in the largest number of disaster songs in our collection, many in other languages. My colleague Joe Scanlon and two student research assistants published an article about international Titanic songs.
So why the emphasis on English-language songs? The obvious answer is that, while I am reasonable competent in French, I am most comfortable in English and it is therefore easiest for me to find English-language songs. My efforts to solicit disaster songs have largely been made through the medium of English, resulting in mostly English songs.
But the answer deserves a little more nuance. A francophone colleague told me about the French tradition of “complaintes,” which are songs about tragic events. There is one so-named in the collection, “La Complainte de Springhill.” However, most “complaintes” are about murders or other intentional violence, which we have excluded from this project. For some reason, they do not seem to deal much with large-scale tragedies such as shipwrecks.
I am also a Gaelic speaker and, knowing that the Scottish Gaelic song tradition includes many songs about tragedies, particularly shipwrecks, and knowing that there was until quite recently a healthy Gaelic song-making tradition in Nova Scotia, I expected to find a number of Gaelic disaster songs. However, with the exception of two songs that a colleague brought to my attention, I have not found any. This has surprised me, for many Gaelic speakers worked in the coal mines, and there are many Nova Scotia mining disaster songs in English. Why aren’t there any in Gaelic?
It occurs to me that one reason for the plethora of English-language disaster songs and the absence of disaster songs in other languages has to do with the tradition of the Anglo-American ballad. The ballad is a story-telling song genre, and there is a long history of ballads in English, including a history of ballads about tragic events. However, although some ballads are known in several languages (including Gaelic and French), ballads are not as common in Gaelic. Meanwhile, the French “ballade” refers to a medieval fixed form rather than to the subject matter or narrative style, as in the case of the English ballad.
Another reason may have to do with the new world context. Although tragedy is a common subject in the Scottish Gaelic song repertoire, it is possible that new world bards wanted to focus on other, possibly more positive subjects. It is also possible that urban Gaels, such as those that worked in the coal mines, allowed certain subjects to move into the English song repertoire. Historian David Frank has observed that many of the characteristics of Gaelic expressive culture were retained in mining communities, but in English (1985).
Are there other reasons why there may be fewer disaster songs in languages other than English? Or have I simply overlooked a number of examples?
Frank, David. 1985. “Tradition and Culture in the Cape Breton Mining Community in the Early Twentieth Century”. In Cape Breton at 200: Historical Essays in Honour of the Island’s Bicentennial, 1785-1985, edited by K. J. Donovan, 203-218. Sydney, N.S.: University College of Cape Breton Press.