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Voices Fall-Winter 2004:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpts from “‘We Will Never Forget’: Disaster in American Folksong from the Nineteenth Century to September 11, 2001” by Revell Carr here.
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Volume 30

We Will Never Forget: Disaster in American Folksong from the Nineteenth Century to September 11, 2001 by Revell Carr

Folksongs commemorating disasters at sea, on the battlefield, and at the hands of nature have a long tradition. Songs in the genre share elements of content, including a tabloid-like recounting of the details of the event and the suffering of both victims and survivors, and serve a common function in helping the local community heal and reestablish its regular patterns of life. Satellite television and the Internet have now created global communities for large-scale disasters like terrorist attacks. Today’s songwriters are inspired to compose new disaster songs that are well within the tradition yet reach out to the wider national and even international community as it mourns its losses.

For hundreds of years, broadside ballads were an important source of news and entertainment, presenting current events in vivid detail and often providing moral commentary. By studying broadsides, we can get a sense of the values and beliefs of the people of a particular time and place. Many broadside ballads recount disasters—famines, floods, fires, plagues, shipwrecks, earthquakes, and now, terrorist attacks.

Even though the ballad writers were often geographically remote from the sites of the tragedies, they were motivated to write as first-hand witnesses. The reach of disaster songs widened in the twentieth century, as disasters were electronically mediated and consumed as popular culture. September 11, 2001, brought the world a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, as live images reached communities around the world instantaneously via satellite television and the Internet. In the aftermath of that day, songwriters around the world responded with new disaster songs, proving the genre’s continued social function and relevance.

The U.S. Tradition

...[D]isaster songs appear in many forms and styles. Some are narrative ballads, others are songs with choruses, some use call-and-response, and others are a cappella dirges. Especially in today’s fragmented and commercialized music environment, disaster songs are stylistically varied; performed in idioms like country and western, urban blues, folk rock, and even electronica, reflecting the diversity of the individuals and communities that are touched by disasters. In other words, disaster songs are not defined by their musical style or structure, but rather constitute a genre distinguished by content and social function. Nevertheless, there are common characteristics that can be used to distinguish disaster songs from other genres. A classic broadside ballad from 1840, published in New York City and distributed all over the eastern seaboard, will illustrate these characteristics.

Based on an analysis of more than two hundred disaster songs from a variety of manuscripts and published collections, I have identified six characteristics of the genre, all of which are evident in the ballad of the Lexington.

  1. The song describes actual historical events: “The Lexington” uses specific dates, proper names, and place-names to establish historicity.
  2. The event features significant loss of life: in this case, a hundred and fifty people.
  3. Themes and motifs include unheeded warnings, human culpability, and divine retribution. Here, blame for the disaster falls on the ship’s careless owners.
  4. Stock formulae—most commonly the date of the tragedy, which usually appears at the beginning—are used both as mnemonic devices and as keys signifying the performance frame. In this case the ballad’s title has the date, and the first verse specifies “Monday last at three o’clock.”
  5. Voyeuristic and sensationalistic details give the song a tabloid quality: “The Lexington” provides gruesome details, such as the capsizing of the lifeboat, in the same way that today’s media use graphic film footage.
  6. The song conveys empathy for the victims and the survivors: the singer expresses sentiments on behalf those who suffered.

Sinking of the Lexington was a major news story of 1840.
Broadside ballads like this have been popular sources of news since the seventeenth century. The sinking of the Lexington was one of the major news stories of 1840. Courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University.

Disaster songs like “The Lexington” serve as catalysts for communitas and help heal psychic wounds in the disaster’s aftermath, and they capitalize upon the common human urge to bear witness—all part of the same process of coping with the chaos and confusion of traumatic social dramas....

Disaster songs function as redressive action, communicating shared sentiments and emotions, through which a social bond with others can be solidified in the days and weeks following a disaster. The power of the ritualistic performance of the disaster song is linked to the profound experience of communitas inherent in the social drama of disaster....

A Wider Community

The disaster song acts as a virtual or vicarious experience of the disaster, in much the same way as a news report. In January 1840, the sinking of the Lexington in Long Island Sound affected communities from Virginia to Illinois to Maine, giving the broadside a widespread audience (Miller 1906). As disasters became more global, the media did as well. The current era of globally mediated disasters began in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic. In the United States more than one hundred songs about the Titanic were copyrighted within the first eight months following the disaster; most were never published....
Currier and Ives print of the Lexington disaster
The Lexington disaster touched many communities on the East Coast. This Currier & Ives print was reproduced in the Connecticut Magazine in 1906 and is one of the pieces of ephemera from that disaster in the collection of the Stonington (Connecticut) Historical Society.

...Kitty Donohoe of Michigan performed her September 11 song, “There Are No Words,” for a benefit at the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse in East Lansing, only three days after the disaster. According to Donohoe (2004), she was the only performer that night who sang specifically about the attacks, and the audience response was overwhelming. People came to her afterward saying, “You put into words what I wanted to say.” Her local community responded to the crisis through music, reaching out from a distance to the community that suffered the attack and beginning the healing process in themselves at the same time...Donohoe’s “There Are No Words” is an excellent example of what emerged in folk music scenes around the country following September 11:

There are no words. There is no song.
There is no balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long.
And when the stars have burned to dust,
hand in hand we still will stand because we must.
In one single hour, in one single day,
we were changed forever, something taken away.
And there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone,
that can bring back the voices or the spirits of our own.
All the brothers, all the lovers, all the friends that are gone,
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on.
Can we ever forgive, though we never will forget?
Can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet?
We were forged in freedom. We were born in liberty.
We came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny.
And we won’t bow down, we are strong of heart.
We are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart.

The virtual environment of the World Wide Web was one of the most popular and accessible places for people to gather to mourn the loss felt during that day. Within twenty-hours after the twin towers fell, songwriters were posting lyrics on folksong web sites like Mudcat Café...

...Kitty Donohoe’s song was intentionally apolitical and was intended as “an emotional statement,” but many other songwriters focused on the political aspects of the attacks; some wrote songs to familiar patriotic melodies like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A guest to the Mudcat Café, writing under the pseudonym “Sonja W. Oates,” posted two songs within a week after the disaster, one of which used the melody of George M. Cohan’s World War I song “Over There” (Oates 2001).
Aural Monuments for 9/11

Probably because the September 11 disaster exists at an intersection of warfare, religion, and nationalism, many songwriters chose to focus on sociopolitical aspects of the event rather than the specific details of the disaster. This explains why many of these songs are more akin to wartime songs than they are to most other disaster songs. Many of the September 11 songs are strongly reminiscent of English and Scottish popular ballads (as collected in the nineteenth century by F. J. Child) concerned with warfare, particularly those that describe attacks on civilian populations...

War songs and disaster songs have in common their function as aural monuments. They are enduring structures of sound that enshrine the memories of the deceased and the intense emotions of the survivors. Monument building is essential to the healing of psychic wounds following major social dramas. In his work on the sociology of mourning, Peter Homans (2000: 22) writes,
Message written in the dust of a fire engine after 9/11
Message written in the dust on a fire engine returning from ground zero, September 13, 2001. Photo: Martha Cooper.

The monument represents a past event and serves as a carrier of memory back through time to that event. After the event has been recollected and reflected upon, memory is released, and one comes back, so to speak, to the present. Through this process, memory of an earlier experience of loss is assuaged and rendered, or rerendered, less stressful.

Disaster songs render disaster less stressful while also reminding listeners of the gravity of the traumatic event...As aural monuments, disaster songs become repeatable rituals of remembrance, bringing a part of the listener back to that day...

The disaster song elevates the lived experience of the disaster to the status of heroic narrative; the actors in the social drama take on mythic dimensions. This is true especially of occupational songs, like mining disaster songs, in which the protagonists’ heroism is tied to their routinely dangerous jobs. This is a central characteristic of September 11 songs, many of which focus on the heroism of the police officers and firefighters who perished.

Although the disaster song is characterized by its social significance rather than its form, contemporary songwriters utilize socially meaningful images and metaphors that have been in folksong traditions for generations. Whether disaster songs are written as local responses to local disasters, or as personal responses to disasters seen in the national media, we cannot ignore the important social functions of this genre. In the days, weeks, and years following major disasters, communities need the social bonding provided by disaster songs in order to survive. It is this function of community reinforcement, through the process of memorializing, that makes the disaster song genre a continually vital form of expression.


Revell Carr is a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

September 11, 2001, brought the world a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, as live images reached communities around the world instantaneously via satellite television and the Internet. In the aftermath of that day, songwriters around the world responded with new disaster songs, proving the genre’s continued social function and relevance.

On the Burning of the Steamer Lexington, When one hundred and fifty souls perished, and only five rescued from the devouring element, in Long Island Sound, on her passage to Stonington, Connecticut, on Monday evening, 13th of January, 1840.

On Monday last, at three o’clock,
With streamers floating gay,
A steamer called the LEXINGTON
From New York sailed away.

One hundred souls, or more that time,
She carried with her along;
Whose cruel fate it was decreed,
Should never see another morn.

The gentlemen, who went on board
Were full of life and glee;
Expecting soon their relatives
And numerous friends to see.

When opposite to Eaton’s Neck,
A cry of fire was heard;
On which they all rushed on the deck,
So sore they were afraid!

The fire soon got so far ahead
It rose in volumes high;
The flames soon spread along its sides,
While dreadful was the cry.

And as the flames in volumes rolled,
To hear them shriek and moan
Would cause the stoutest heart to break
Of marble or of stone!

The lifeboat soon was lowered down,
The steamer under weigh,
When twenty souls were all upset,
And buried in the sea!

Two other boats under her bow
Were sunk along its side;
They all looked on, with horror struck,
And wrung their hands and cried.

Hilliard, a mariner on board,
A captain bold and brave,
Quick got out his fragile boat,
And rode the stormy wave!

To save themselves from the dreadful fire
They plunged into the wave;
And all the souls who were on board
Soon found a watery grave!

Of a hundred souls, or more,
Who left the port that day,
But five were saved to tell the tale
Of their sad destiny.

The cruel men were all to blame,
The owners of the boat:
To stow their cotton on the deck
With such a precious freight.

Their consciences will lash them sore,
And haunt them many a day;
When they think on the hundred souls
Gone into eternity!

So here I close my mournful lay,
While children yet unborn
Shall to their sons tell the sad tale
And fate of the Lexington.

Literature Cited

Anonymous. 1840. “On the Burning of the Steamer Lexington. ” Broadside printed at 71 Greenwich Lane, New York City. John Hay Library, Brown University.

Burt, Olive Woolley. 1958. American Murder Ballads and Their Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carr, James Revell. 1998. “Disaster Songs: A Continuing Tradition in American Folksong.” Master’s thesis, University of Oregon.

Child, Francis James. 1882. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.

Cohen, Norm. 1999. “The Sinking of the Titanic and the Floundering of American Folksong Scholarship.” Southern Folklore 56(1): 3–26.

Donohoe, Kitty. 2001. RE: New Songs for 9-11-01. Posted by Charley Noble. http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid= 38859& messages=30. October 7, 10:04 A.M.

———. 2004. Personal communication. April 30.

Homans, Peter. 2000. “Introduction.” In Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century’s End, edited by Peter Homans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Laws, G. Malcolm. 1964. Native American Balladry. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society.

Long, Eleanor R. 1973. “Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology.” Western Folklore 32(4): 225–36.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, ed. 1906. “The Lexington” in The Connecticut Magazine, 10:3 (438). Mudcat Café. 2001. New Songs for 9-11-01. http://dev.mudcat.org/thread. cfm?threadid=38859.

Oates, Sonja W. 2001. RE: 9/11: Responding Through Music. Over Here. http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm? threadid=38981&messages=15. September 18, 9:02 P.M.

Otway, Lorcan. 2002. RE: September 11th Commemoration Songs. Posted by InOBU. http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm? threadid=51239#780090. September 9, 3:59 A.M.

———. 2004. Personal communication. April 29.

Rehr, Whitney. 1998. “Above the Wreckage (for TWA Flight 800).” truthcage. Denver: Alternative Folk Rock Collection.

Shabad, Peter. 2000. “The Most Intimate of Creations: Symptoms as Memorials to One’s Lonely Suffering.”In Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century’s End, edited by Peter Homans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wolfenstein, Martha. 1957. Disaster: A Psychological Essay. Glencoe: The Free Press.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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