Hurricane Songs and Stories
Officially, hurricane season lasts from June through November, but in reality the peak months are August and September. Everybody, who has lived along the Gulf Coast or the South Atlantic states, probably has a good story or two to tell about these cyclonic winds and torrential rains that occasionally come ashore and wreck havoc.
In worse case scenarios the destruction can be horrific. Still, somebody has to tell the story and that's where folksingers and musicians come to the forefront. From the Great Galveston Flood of 1900 to Hurricane Harvey (August 2017), which just dropped an unbelievable amount of rain on East Texas, the survival tales persist. Here is a small selection from a few storms that had left behind a durable memory among the survivors.
Picking Up the Pieces, Galveston 1900
Wasn't That a Mighty Storm
The Great Galveston Flood was an unnamed September hurricane that decimated the Texas coastal island and town of Galveston. Destruction was horrible and the death toll was even worse, as it is believed that over 10,000 people died in the tidal surge. After the storm, the city of Galveston undertook one of the biggest public works in U.S. History and raised the island approximately seventeen feet. Then they added a stone seawall to hold back any future Gulf storm surge.
A song, called “Wasn't That a Mighty Storm” also grew out of the aftermath. The tune is sometimes called The Galveston Flood and has long since become a standard among folksingers. History of the song is obscure, but it is believed that the song originated in the black churches of the region as a spiritual. The first recording occurred in 1933 by a preacher, named “Sin-killer” Griffen. In the late 50s, folksinger Eric von Schmidt found the tune in the Library of Congress archives and revived and rearranged it. I have linked to a 2008 version by the Canadian group, The Duhks. Their cover of Wasn't That a Mighty Storm features the deep soulful voice of Sarah Dugas.
Wasn't That a Mighty Storm
Back in the seventies, Randy Newman wrote this sad ballad about the 1927 hurricane that hit southeastern Louisiana. The interesting thing about this story is that he obtained the oral history about the storm from his mother, who was originally from the Crescent City. Keep in mind this story takes place before hurricanes had names and before there were satellite photos and specially-designed hunter planes that could fly into the center of a 150 mph storm.
In 1961, Hurricane Hattie, brushed by the island of Jamaica and then hit southern Belize hard, killing several hundred people in the process. A year later, at age fourteen, a young Jamaican musician named, Jimmy Cliff, released a song called Hurricane Hattie. Though more about a stormy personal relationship than the actual hurricane, the tune became an island hit that launched the young musician's singing career.
Hurricane Betsy was a 1965 hurricane that crossed southern Florida and then intensified once it got into the Gulf of Mexico. Even though the storm came inland west of New Orleans, its counterclockwise winds drove water into Lake Ponchartrain and severely flooded the eastern parts of New Orleans, including the Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish. As during Katrina, some levees broke flooding some homes and trapping residents in their attics. Even so the death toll was just a tiny fraction of what happened during Katrina. Lightning Hopkins wrote this blues account while living in the Big Easy.
Tryin' To Reason With Hurricane Season
Several decades ago, 1974 to be exact, Jimmy Buffett penned this laid-back, half-sober tune about life on a tiny little strip of land (the Florida Keys) that sticks way out into the Gulf of Mexico. The album was entitled A1A, a direct reference to that long stretch of asphalt that links Key West to the rest of Florida.
Although no actual hurricanes appear in this song, Jimmy draws an interesting parallel between his struggling life as a musician and the precarious position in his home way out in the gulf.
Trying To Reason with Hurricane Season
Gilbert Mash Up Jamaica
Before Gilbert decimated the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as a category 5, the tempest roared across the Jamaica as a Cat 3 storm. Fortunately, Jamaica is the home to many talented Reggae musicians so the destruction and aftermath of the storm was duly recorded with a skankin' rhythm beat. The results are quite humorous, even though the hurricane wasn't. It killed about 40 people in Jamaica and hundreds in Mexico.
Both Yellowman and Lloyd Lovindeer recorded songs with the same title, Wild Gilbert. I have no idea whether this is the result of coincidence or copying. Anyway, below is a link to the Yellowman video, a spirited request to the people of Jamaica to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
By a long shot, Hurricane Katrina has inspired more songs than any other tropical event. Much of the explanation may be found within the very nature of the Crescent City, for nowhere in North America, can such a rich musical tradition be found. From the bars of the French Quarter, to the streets surrounding Jackson Square to the uptown music halls, music is everywhere. Even funerals are sometimes celebrated with the help of a marching brass band.
Combine these cultural elements with a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina and it is no wonder that there are so many New Orleans musicians, talking and singing about life in the new Big Easy.
Three songs are featured here. One by a C&W singer, simply called Crescent City Snow, another by a slide guitarist, titled The Long Black Line. And finally there is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performing a rap version of Marvin Gaye's classic, What's Going On. There last number may take a few extra words because in normal times, the Dirty Dozen is a traditional brass band that almost never ventures from that genre. To have this band perform an angry rap song about the Katrina catastrophe shows just how bad things became in the Katrina aftermath.
Crescent City Snow
The Long Black Line
What's Going On?
The rock band, Coldplay, was scheduled to play in Houston the night before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast. Wisely, the band canceled their show and headed on to their next concert stop in Miami. And it was here in Miami that they performed their recently-written tribute to the residents of Houston. The song is written in a C&W style and simply titled, Houston #1.
Palms in a Hurricane
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Harry Nielsen