Music is the universal language that brings all walks of life together under unity and free expression. Regardless of nationality, native language, or race—music transcends these self-imposed discriminations.
We all know what the power of music can do when we undergo a personal crisis: it can lift us out of depression, provide a small reprieve from sadness, and can also be the soundtrack to heartbreak or a new romance.
Music can also bring us together in times of external problems that we may face as a nation. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan provided the music to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Even harking back to the days of seafaring legends, where victories rejoiced in song and dance. Hundreds of years ago, when wars were fought, music was an important element of the battlefield. For example, during the American revolutionary war, marching bands provided the rhythm to keep battalions of troops in sync. Music is deeply rooted in nature and is as old as the universe itself; male birds will attempt to impress the opposite sex with a little song and dance, for example.
More recently, with the advent of modern pop music, songs about natural disasters will occasionally permeate the consciousness of society as we either attempt to make sense of the ravages that mother nature brought forth or to document and honour the thousands of lives that were either senselessly taken or sacrificed during a crisis, whether it was artificial or created by nature.
We decided to take a look at the top 6 best songs about disasters, whether they were natural or man-made – whether they were a result of nature bringing humanity back into check, or caused by cultural, political and historical turmoil.
The best songs about disasters
Pete Seeger – ‘The Titanic’
The song was written within weeks of the disaster of when “that great ship went down.” Written by William and Versey Smith, the song is fairly self-explanatory; it was intended as a children’s song —the lyrics are written straightforwardly with the constant refrain of “It was sad when that great ship went down.”
The disaster has been documented several different times in songs and most notably in the famous film by James Cameron. The tragic event happened on April 15th, 1912, when the ship set sail from England and headed to New York City.
The ship hit an iceberg, sinking what was supposed to be the most impressively built ship of the time. In the song, the songwriter details the events and draws on observations of class differences on a larger scale as described on the microcosmic level of the disaster.
R.E.M – ‘It’s The End Of The World And We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’
This is a song about a fictional and/or potential disaster that was inspired by a dream that Michael Stipe, singer of R.E.M, had. In a sense, it is about everyday life and the mini disasters we experience daily – it’s when those small fears culminate and expand into something more grandiose, feeding into somewhat irrational paranoia we all share to a certain degree.
“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid.”
The opening lyrics to this classic song paint a picture of that very relatable fear we share when a disaster does happen and how it can feel like ‘the end of the world’.
Bee Gees – ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941‘
While there wasn’t a mining disaster in New York in 1941 (there was one in 1939, however) the Gibb brothers wrote this song in 1967, based on a mining disaster in Wales in 1966, called the Aberfan mining disaster.
The song tells the story of two fictional men trapped underground while waiting for a rescue. One man shows the other a picture of his wife, Mrs. Jones.
The song was the debut single for the British-Australian group, and when it hit the charts, many thought that it was The Beatles incognito. Barry Gibb commented on this point: “If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles. And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.”
Billy Joel – ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’
For some reason, this might come as a shock to many people, but Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ is not only a fantastic song, it is one of the most inventive of all time. The embalming gloss of uber eighties production sheen may well lend it a visceral adrenalised edge, but what it gives in energy, it, admittedly, slightly retracts in sincerity and class.
However, hidden beneath the opulent production is a piece of music that would’ve been deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize if it came sporting some gingham affrontery, which in some ways would have been more fitting as it is essentially as close to an old folk diatribe of history as they come.
Throughout the lyrics, Joel makes his way through a whopping 118 historical events, traversing a rhythmic course through life from 1948 to 1989, never once straining to rhyme, breaking stride or losing any momentum on its way to a searing guitar solo — and what’s more, he wraps it up in under five minutes.
The Dubliners – ‘Springhill Mining Disaster‘
There have been three major mining disasters in the town of Springhill in Nova Scotia, Canada. This particular song from The Dubliners details the mining crisis that took place in 1958. The crisis happened when there was a seismic ‘bump’, resembling an earthquake. Of the 174 miners in the No.2 colliery, 75 died immediately from being crushed, while 99 were trapped but rescued.
The Dubliners are an Irish folk band and were known for popularizing Irish traditional music throughout the rest of the continent.
“In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia
Down in the heart of the Cumberland Mine
There’s blood on the coal and miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun or sky
Roads that never saw sun or sky”
Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane’
This selection is a bit of an exception and a play on words but is still a complete disaster. This epic song penned by Dylan is about the black American boxer, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who was imprisoned, which Dylan so skillfully paints as a racially charged unfair murder conviction.
When Hurricane Carter was in prison, Dylan went to visit him to get his side of the story. Rubin Carter and a man called John Artis were charged with triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in New Jersey. Carter and Artis were found guilty in the ensuing years, although many believed it was due to racism as the evidence was allegedly faulty.
During the subsequent years, Carter wrote an autobiography that Dylan read and promptly visited the boxer. Eventually, the two accused men’s charges were reversed as the prosecution was “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
Despite Dylan’s efforts to rally support behind Hurricane Carter (he raised $100,000 after one charity show), some criticised Dylan for his song partly being factually incorrect. Years later, the song still remains as one of Dylan’s best protest numbers and it was a true disaster of American law at one point.