America's music has been inspired by love, people, experiences and virtually all of life, nature and the universe. Among those inspirations have been many terrible events that cause grief, pain and terrible loss of life. This month's edition provides you with a survey of some of the songs written by authors to commemorate real events in the history of American life. The songs are not meant to celebrate, but to serve as a memorial to the event and those who lost their lives during these horrific events. Some of the events were of man's own doing, caused by engineering defects, carelessness or perhaps some ignorance. Society has learned from many of these events and we live today in a safer environment that makes the likelihood of such events unlikely. Other events, inspired by natural causes cannot be prevented but the effects can now be diminished through better communication, preparation and even construction such as tornado shelters, Unfortunately, ignorance cannot be eliminated as a cause and we will still experience the result of that and despite all efforts, events may still occur with massive loss of life.
All of the songs presented here were inspired by actual events. Some of those events are still well remembered today as they were truly life changing. Others are not at all remembered or remembered only by a select few historians, people who live in areas where the event took place or students of history. The Chicago fire and the sinking of the Lusitania are probably more widely remembered than the St. Louis cyclone, the Iroquois Theater fire, the Slocum fire and the St. Paul mine disaster. However, those and others we present were in most respects even more disastrous than those that are remembered. And, just as in life's disasters, some of the songs are beautiful expressions of memoriam and others themselves border on musical disaster. Regardless of musical quality, all represent an important reminder of the events and those who suffered and died as a result of the events.
The Great Lakes in the U. S. may seem benign to those who are not familiar with them however the are large, deep and subject to fast developing storms that over the centuries have claimed thousands of ships. The exact number of shipwrecks in the Lakes is unknown; the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum approximates 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives lost, while historian and mariner Mark Thompson has estimated that the total number of wrecks is likely more than 25,000. ¹
Just before midnight on September 7, 1860, a side wheel steamboat named the Lady Elgin left Chicago bound for Milwaukee. The almost 700 (estimates vary due to many unticketed passengers aboard) passengers on the steamer were returning from a long day’s outing. The ship originated in Milwaukee earlier that day and was loaded with a contingent of Wisconsin militia who had sailed to Chicago to take part in a Democratic convention. There is an interesting political story related to this ship and an excellent account of the entire event at a site titled "The Wreck of the Lady Elgin."
The Elgin was ready to depart at 11pm but the veteran Captain expressed some concern about the weather which had turned stormy.By around 2:30 am, the winds had built to gale force but despite the waves and wind, the Elgin was weathering the storm. Shortly after that time, a 128 foot schooner, the Augusta, sailed directly into the side of the Elgin, impaling herself in the ships side. When the August broke loose, the Elgin began to break up and soon sunk The weather hampered rescue efforts and in all, approximately 430 people were lost, many never found.
The song, is a bit like a funeral dirge, certainly appropriate for the event. It has three verses that tell the sad story of the loss of life with a peaceful if not tender melody. The chorus is pleasant with hymn-like harmony.
Henry Clay Work was born in 1832 in Middletown, CT and died in 1884 in Hartford. His family moved to Illinois when he was still a child and he was educated there. The family later returned to Connecticut and young Henry was apprenticed to a printer. He studied music and wrote verse on his own and soon began to write songs, both the music and lyrics. He was inspired by the Civil War to write Marching Through Georgia, Wake, Babylon is Falling and other songs of the war that became popular. During the 1870's he wrote a number of temperance songs that were popular. He also was known for sentimental songs such as The Ship That Never Returned and wrote the famous, My Grandfather's Clock (1876, his last successful song). A man of many talents, Work was also an inventor and patented a rotary engine, a knitting machine and a walking doll. He lost his personal fortune by investing in a fruit farm that failed and lived in New York before returning to Connecticut before his death.
His primary publishing associations were with Root and Cady and Cody. An interesting anecdote about his printer background is that he often composed by typesetting the music as he composed and completely bypassed the usual steps of a hand manuscript or even trying his music on the piano first! Considered a first rate melodist and his songs had a nearly universal appeal. Though his song Come Home Father is somber, and he was an intense supporter of causes, Work also had a playful side and his 1862, Grafted Into The Army was and still is a funny song and it has continued in the repertoire for over 100 years. Much of his music stands on its own against that of Stephen Foster and though less well known today, Work is probably one of only a few of the truly original American popular song composers to invent American popular music style and who influenced the following generations of songwriters.
The Billow of Fire,
The great Chicago fire of 1871 was one of America's greatest disasters of the 19th century. Said to have been caused when a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the fire (The legendary Mrs. O'Leary's cow). The fire burned over two days from October 8 through the tenth and destroyed thousands of buildings, killed an estimated 300 people and caused an estimated $200 million in damages. Though the Chicago fire is most remembered, The same day the Great Chicago Fire began, a fire broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in which more than 1,000 people perished!
The event which caused the republication of the song was one of America's worst railroad disasters.On the afternoon of December 29, 1876 the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left Erie, Pennsylvania, in deep snow. Two locomotives, "Socrates" and "Columbia", were hauling 11 railcars, including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, three coaches, and three sleeping cars that carried 159 passengers. At about 7:30 pm the train was crossing over the Ashtabula River about 1,000 feet (300 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio when the bridge gave way beneath it. The lead locomotive made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive and the rest of the train plunged 76 feet (23 m) into the water. Some cars landed in an upright position. The wooden cars were set alight by the heating stoves and lamps and soon small, localized fires became an inferno. Of 159 passengers and crew on board that night, 92 were killed or died later from injuries. Among the dead were the composer of this song, Philip Paul Bliss and his wife Lucy. Bliss escaped from the wreck, but the carriages caught fire and Bliss returned to try to extricate his wife. No trace of either body was discovered. Sadly, many others of the dead were unidentified Bliss, his wife the others are buried in a mass grave, marked by an obelisk in Ashtabula's Elm Grove Cemetery.
P. P. Bliss ( Philip Phillipp) (b. 1838, Rome, PA - d. 1876, Ashtabula, Ohio) His father was Isaac Bliss, a practicing Methodist, who taught the family to pray daily. Isaac loved music and allowed Philip to develop his passion for singing. At age 10, while selling vegetables to help support the family, Bliss first heard a piano. At age 11, he left home to make his own living. He worked in timber camps and sawmills. While working, he irregularly went to school to further his education. Inspired by a revival meeting at age 12, Bliss joined the Baptist Church. Bliss had little formal education and was taught by his mother, from the Bible.At 17, Bliss finished his requirements to teach. The next year, in 1856, he became a schoolmaster at Hartsville, New York, and during the summer he worked on a farm. In 1857, Bliss met J. G. Towner, who taught singing. Towner recognized Bliss’s talent and gave him his first formal voice training. He also met William B. Bradbury, who persuaded him to become a music teacher. His first musical composition was sold for a flute. In 1858, he took up an appointment in Rome Academy, Pennsylvania. In 1858, in Rome, Bliss met Lucy J. Young, whom he married on June 1, 1859. She came from a musical family and encouraged the development of his talent. She was a Presbyterian, and Bliss joined her Church. At age 22, Bliss became an itinerant music teacher. On horseback, he went from community to community accompanied by a melodeon. Bliss’s wife’s grandmother lent Bliss $30 so he could attend the Normal Academy of Music of New York for six weeks. Bliss was now recognized as an expert within his local area. He continued the itinerant teaching. At this time he turned to composition. None of his songs were ever copyrighted. ³His fame as a composer was in writing gospel songs, many of which persist to this day. Though he was a Baptist, some of his songs have crossed over to other sects. He perished in the fire of the great Ashtabula train wreck in 1876 along with his wife Lucy
The song is in a common style of the day, a solo with a four part chorus.
Cyclones, known today as tornadoes, have always been a threat to the United States and in particular, the mid-western states. As a weather phenomenon, the U. S. experiences more tornados than other parts of the world but they do occur in some other countries. The 1896 St. Louis – East St. Louis tornado was a historic tornado that occurred on Wednesday, May 27, 1896, as part of a major tornado outbreak across the Central United States that day, continuing across the Eastern United States on the 28th. One of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history, this large and violent tornado was the most notable of an outbreak which produced other large, long-track, violent, killer tornadoes. It caused approximately $2.9 billion in damage adjusted for 1997, or over $10,000,000 in damage in 1896.²
The tornado spawned from the super cell became the third deadliest and the most costly tornado in United States history. It touched down in St. Louis, Missouri, then one of the largest and most influential cities in the country. At least 137 people died as the tornado traversed the core of the city leaving a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide continuous swath of destroyed homes, schools, saloons, factories, mills, churches, parks, and railroad yards. A few of the destroyed homes were swept away. Numerous trees were downed at the 36-acre (0.15 km2) Lafayette Park, and a barometer recorded a drop to 26.74 in Hg (906 hPa) at this location .Uncounted others may have died on boats on the Mississippi River, which could have swept their bodies down river.
Where the tornado crossed the Mississippi and struck the Eads Bridge, a 2 in × 10 in wooden plank was found driven through a 5⁄16 in wrought iron plate. The tornado continued into East St. Louis, Illinois, where it was smaller, but more intense. Homes and buildings along the river were completely swept away and a quarter of the buildings there were damaged or destroyed. An additional 118 people were killed, and 35 of those deaths alone occurred at the Vandalia railroad freight yards. The confirmed death toll is 255, with some estimates above 400. More than 1,000 were injured. The tornado was later rated F4 on the Fujita scale.
Whereas several of the songs written about disasters featured this month were written by relative unknown composers who were driven by the pathos of the events, this song (and the two above) is by a pair of more "mainstream" writers and their expertise is evident in the quality of the work. Though the musical experience is quite varied, one common theme among these songs is the lyrics focus on the sorrow, sadness and devastation for those left behind.
George Evans (b. 1870, Wales - d. 1915, Baltimore) Evans' family brought him to the US at age seven. He became a performer before he was a composer. Known as a black face minstrel, he starred in Lew Docstader's Minstrels at one point in his career. According to histories, Evans was well known for his comedic routines which he also performed on vaudeville. In 1894 Evans wrote the song I'll Be True To My Honey Boy which became quite popular and resulted in him gaining the permanent nickname of Honey Boy. Some of his compositions are still well remembered and have become classic "gay 90's style songs. Almost all of his songs were in collaboration with Ren Shields. Among them are In The Good Old Summertime (1902), In The Merry Month of May (1903), Come Take a Trip In My Air-Ship (1904), You'll Have to Wait Till My Ship Comes In (1906) and of course, Waltzing With The Girl You Love (1905).
Ren Shields (b. 1868, Chicago, IL - d. 1913, Massapequa, NY) Shields started his career as have many songwriters as a youth in minstrel shows and vaudeville. He sang as a part of the Empire State Quartet in vaudeville from 1890 - 1894 and also performed with Max Million beginning in 1894. Somewhere along the way, Shields met George Evans, composer and fellow vaudevillian and the two collaborated on a number of songs many of which are still remembered more than a century later. Among his hit lyrics are; In The Good Old Summertime (1902) (Scorch format), In The Merry Month of May (1903), Come Take a Trip In My Air-Ship (1904), Steamboat Bill (1910, and Waltzing With The One You Love (Scorch format) (1905).
The Chicago fire may be the most remembered conflagration from the past but several others cost much more in lives lost. Though many of these fires were limited in area, the loss of life was horrific. One such disaster was the fire in the Iroquois theater in Chicago on December 30, 1903.On that day the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the popular musical Mr. Bluebeard. The play, featured Dan McAvoy as Bluebeard and Eddie Foy as Sister Anne. The December 30 performance drew a sellout audience. Tickets were sold for every seat in the house, plus hundreds more for the "standing room" areas at the back of the theater. Many of the estimated 2,100–2,200 patrons attending the matinee were children. The standing room areas were so crowded that some patrons instead sat in the aisles, blocking the exits.
Sparks from an arc light ignited a muslin curtain, probably as a result of an electrical short circuit. A stagehand tried to douse the fire with Kilfyre canisters, but it quickly spread to the gallery high above the stage. There, several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats were hung. The stage manager tried to lower the asbestos fire curtain, but it snagged.4 Calm at first, the crowd turned top panic and due to the size of the crowd, limited exits, false exits (painted doors and windows that were not actual doors or windows) and some blocked exits hundreds died by incineration, trampling, crushing and asphyxiation. By most accounts, over 600 people perished however that count is questioned as many bodies were removed before a count was made.
Unfortunately, I cannot find any information about the composer, Zella Evans. Unlike some of the songs about disasters, this one seems to have a gayer, more upbeat sound to it which is somewhat bizarre given the tragic scope of the subject. Perhaps Ms. Evans wanted to try to not make the song so much a sad affair but one that paints a more uplifting view of the spirits of those who were lost. The lyrics on the other hand, do spell out the horror and terror of the event.
From land to sea we find yet another fire disaster with even greater loss of life.The Slocum disaster is another that has been long forgotten by most of America but it deserves to be remember for its loss of life and effect on ship safety. The PS General Slocum was a passenger steamboat built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1891. During her service history, she was involved in a number of mishaps, including multiple groundings and collisions. What happened on to the Slocum on June 15, 1904 would make the other evens seem insignificant and would result in the deadliest disaster in New York before 9/11 that killed many women and children and ultimately erased a German community from the map of Manhattan.
The song is a rather simple one with a somewhat familiar sound to it. For 1905, it seems a bit dated, almost belonging in the 1880's or before. Nonetheless, it is a fine tribute to a long forgotten disaster and the hundreds who who died a terrible death. The Slocum Disaster may have been the only song written by Mann as I cannot find any reference to any other songs by him. He is not mentioned in any of our books in our reference library or across the internet in the searches I conducted.
One would think that with a title such as this, the disaster occurred in St. Paul Minnesota but far from it, the St. Paul mine was named after the company that opened the mine to supply coal for their trains, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. The disaster occurred in Cherry, Illinois and it is remembered today as the Cherry Mine disaster.
The mine was a deep one, with three horizontal shafts linked by vertical shafts and accessed by a lift via a tall steel tower. Each shaft was connected through a series of wooden ladders and stairs.The mine was worked by many immigrants, mostly Italian, many of whom spoke no English. The crews included a number of children, some as young as 11 years old. "On Saturday, November 13, 1909, like most days, nearly 500 men and boys, and three dozen mules, were working in the mine. Unlike most days, an electrical outage earlier that week had forced the workers to light kerosene lanterns and torches, some portable, some set into the mine walls .Shortly after noon, a coal car filled with hay for the mules caught fire from one of the wall lanterns. Initially unnoticed and, by some accounts, ignored by the workers, efforts to move the fire only spread the blaze to the timbers supporting the mine. The large fan was reversed in an attempt to blow out the fire, but this only succeeded in igniting the fan house itself as well as the escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft, trapping more miners below. The two shafts were then closed off to smother the fire, but this also had the effect of cutting off oxygen to the miners, and allowing a suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, to build up in the mine."6 Though 200 men escaped to the surface and rescuers brought up more, 249 men and boys lost their lives. Miraculously, 21 men had managed to block themselves off from the fire and emerged eight days later. In 2009, One hundred years after the disaster, a memorial was erected to those who lost their lives.7
The Williams' who wrote this song deserve an "E" for effort. I've not been able to find any biographical information on the pair however did find a Jennie and Raymond Williams who were brother and sister whose birth and death dates would fit this pair (Jennie 1866-1949, Albert Raymond, 1869 - 1949) and it could be that they were the writers. However, in researching them, I found quite a few Jennie & Raymond Williams'. Perhaps a relative or family member will read this and let us know more about them.
Of course, a list of memorable disasters must include the Fate of the liner Titanic. Perhaps of all disasters, the sinking of the tItanic is the most remembered across the globe. Here then, is a presentation of that song from one of our very early articles, March of 2001:
The Fate of the Titanic
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