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The Disaster Song Project is a 20 song collection that features historic songs as well as originals inspired by the intriguing stories of well known and some lesser known disasters. Here you can order the CD which includes a 12 page booklet of photos, illustrations and notes telling the fascinating stories.

Why a project of disaster songs?   Is this in bad taste?       Q&A

 

 

Disaster Ahead


Bonus CD- with purchase of
The Disaster Song Project

Natchez Burning (Chester Burnett)
Ben Dewberry's Final Run (Andrew Jenkins)
Lost and Saved (George Root)
Hot Day in Mecca/Cold Day in Hell (Jon Waterman)
Wreck of the Old 97 (Work, Lewey, Noell, Whitter, George)
Hidden Away in Your Eyes (Jon Waterman)
King Kong (Jon Waterman)
Who's Gonna Say Merry Christmas? (Jon Waterman)

 

 

 

 

 

Q&A

These songs were inspired by events where hundreds of people suffered and died. Is this project in bad taste?
Why a project of disaster songs?
Are the songs folk music?
Where can I buy the CD?
What inspired you to do a concept CD of disaster songs?
What is a parlor song?
What is an event song?
Should I use the information on this website as a source for my school paper?
Where can I hear more of your music?
Do you write and perform songs that are not about disasters or history?

These songs were inspired by events where hundreds of people suffered and died. Is this project in bad taste?

That's a complicated question. Tragedy has always been expressed in art. Art to some extent or another has always reflected life, and in life tragedies happen. Sensibilities as to how real life tragedy are expressed for storytelling and entertainment have changed over the years.

In the 1800s, during the Romantic movement in literature, melodrama was a popular form of entertainment and the concept of "the sublime" was held in high ideal. The sublime represented what was awesome or awe inspiring- powerful beyond the capacity of humans to control. The Grand Canyon would be sublime. In days before modern weather prediction, fire control, and medicine, the force of a hurricane, a city fire, a raging flood from a broken dam, or even a plague might also be sublime. So in the 1800s and early 1900s, songs about tragedies reflected the artistic sensibility of the times- they were melodramatic, descriptive- in the tradition of broadsides, and expressed an awe and wonder at the power of these terrifying events. As times, technology and preferences changed songs inspired by tragic events have become less descriptive, less sensationalistic and more likely to express collective grief for victims and praise for the bravery of survivors.

Does that mean that songs from past time periods reflecting now out of date sensibilities should be filed away and forgotten as relics of history? I don't think so- I believe artistic works should be timeless- and meaningful not just in the temporary context in which they were first created, but relatable across boundaries as expressions of the human experience. While some of the more offensive minstrel songs are problematic in this regard, the practice of dismissing artistic creations because they do not fit into a present day concept of appropriateness and good taste is a dangerous and slippery slope- and not a healthy one for the arts in general.

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Why a project of disaster songs?

There are countless songs that were written in times past- some published and preserved on old sheet music- sitting tucked away in museums or old collections, unperformed and unknown to anyone but curators and historians and a handful of re-enactors. Those songs were the product of the creative energy and effort of some composer or lyricist or poet or musician. Probably on some subconscious level one of the reasons we write and record songs or paint pictures or build things is to create some part of us that we'll leave behind. A legacy. Something to say we were here. Because, of course, we won't be here forever. But the stuff we create could be, relatively speaking. So recording those songs as part of a living tradition- trying to make them entertaining for and meaningful to present day listeners- is a way of honoring those songwriters and musicians from the past.

Another reason is that an important and often overlooked role of entertainment is to inspire- to inspire curiosity and imagination and then exploration. And that leads to a different kind of learning then what people get from schools, but just as important.

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Are the songs folk music?

That depends on the definition of folk music. If folk music is understood to be the commercial genre that evolved out of the rural tradition of artists like the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie, and the traditional songs unearthed by folklorists like John and Alan Lomax, then no, it is not folk music. However, if the term folk music is understood in a broader sense as the music of the people- "popular" music, then yes, it is.

Personally, I think of music as being either in the category of "popular" and coming from and for the general public or being commissioned by a higher institution such as the state or church as "classical" or some other forms. It's not an exact distinction, and there's a good amount of blur between the two. I think of Woody Guthrie, Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, the Carter Family and old parlor songs as all "popular music." In my opinion, "Popular" and "folk" are interchangeable. I prefer "popular" because it doesn't have the classist or regional (or sometimes racist) associations.

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Where can I buy the CD?



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What inspired you to do a concept CD of disaster songs?

I wrote a song about a disaster on a Civil War steamship called The Sultana which was picked up for use in a documentary being put together by River Rock Entertainment. While waiting for the documentary to be completed, I enrolled in a Master's program at Prescott College in which you propose and design your own course of study. Because of the activity surrounding "Sultana," I ended up designing a study of songs related to disasters. Because my interest has always been in popular music rather then what has come to be called "folk music," I specified the course of study to be on popular music and disasters (of course there is a lot of subjectivity and overlap in those terms...). I further narrowed the subject by specifying U.S. disasters. For the study I was paired with noted music scholar and author Ronald Cohen, Professor of History emeritus at Indiana University.

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What is a parlor song?

Parlor songs were the form of home musical entertainment of the late nineteenth century before the availability of sound recordings. The songs were sold as sheet music and meant to be played on pianos in the parlors of middle class homes

See Wikipedia Parlour Music page

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What is an event song?

Event songs were a form of song popular on the "hillbilly" records of the 1920's and 30's which aimed to appeal to rural, usually southern, white audiences. The event songs were specifically those "hillbilly" songs that told stories of local news events, usually tragedies such as train wrecks, mining disasters and murders. "The Death of Floyd Collins" was an early event song. Andy Jenkins and Carson Robison were notable event song writers. Event songs followed a formula shaped by news bearing broadside ballads and melodramatic parlor songs.

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Should I use the information on this website as a source for my school paper?

Probably not. This isn't a scholarly website. This page is intended to entertain, and through that maybe to inspire curiosity and further exploration. Most of the information here was obtained from wikipedia articles- and for the most part was not checked for accuracy against primary sources. However, this page is good for getting ideas to do more thorough research on.

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Where can I hear more of your music

You can check my social media links on my contact page or you can email me at jon@jonwaterman.com to be on my mailing list and I'll keep you posted. If you are outside of New England and interested in having me perform in your area- whether a regular show or one featuring disaster songs (I always mix it up a little anyway)- please send me an email and we can try to figure out how to make that happen. I am available to do house concerts.

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Do you write and perform songs that are not about disasters or history?

Yes. The majority of my songs are not about disasters or even history. I think as writers we should get our material from wherever we can!

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