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Strachwitz Frontera Collection

Disaster Songs: Telling Tragedy in Any Language
Agustin Gurza | Thursday, May 19, 2016 | 0 comments

Most people know that the worst natural disaster in California history was the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. But which calamity ranks No. 2? That happened in Los Angeles in 1932: a catastrophic dam break that killed 600 people, wiped out neighborhoods all the way to the ocean near Ventura, and ended the career of William Mulholland, the famed engineer who had designed the water system for the new metropolis blooming in the Southern California desert.


The midnight collapse of St. Francis Dam may have faded from memory. But it is recounted in detail in two 78-rpm recordings contained in the Frontera Collection.  One of the songs, La Inundacion de California by Cancioneros Acosta, gives a dramatic overview of the disaster. The other recording, La Inundación De Santa Paula by Esparza y Camacho, tells the terror of people downstream who were awoken as the wall of water hit the low-lying town along the flood’s 54-mile path to the Pacific.


I have lived most of my adult life in Los Angeles, but I admit I was not aware of this historic event until I found these songs in the archive. In fact, there are dozens of so-called disaster songs in the Frontera database. Consider them musical newsreels of sorts, with many told as eyewitness accounts of havoc wreaked by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and volcanoes.


The disaster song has a long tradition in many cultures, pre-dating recorded sound by centuries. Since the 1600s in Europe, news of catastrophes spread through broadside ballads, with verses printed on single sheets of paper and sung by travelling troubadours. That tradition can be traced straight through to the terror attacks of 9/11 in the United States, which sparked a wave of new disaster songs around the world, “proving the genre’s continued social function and relevance,” according to ethnomusicologist Revell Carr.


In his essay, “We Will Never Forget,” published in 2004 by Voices, the Journal of New York Folklore, Carr explains why people love to write and hear songs about disasters, even today when news can be obtained instantly. He cites the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as the first “globally mediated” disaster, spurring composers in the U.S. to copyright more than 100 songs within the first eight months following the tragedy.


Disaster songs “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,” writes Carr, now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “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.”


After studying more than 200 such songs, Carr came up with six characteristics that define the genre: a true event with significant loss of life, citing of the date, empathy for the victims, a tabloid, sensationalistic style, and themes such as “unheeded warnings, human culpability, and divine retribution.” The criteria reminded me of the essay defining the characteristic of the Mexican corrido, written by the late Guillermo Hernández, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, who led the effort to bring the Frontera Collection to UCLA.  (Hernandez’s essay, “What is a Corrido?” is reprinted in my book about the Frontera Collection.) 


Many of the corrido characteristics described by Hernández overlap with Carr’s descriptions.  So, it’s no surprise that many disaster songs in Spanish are corridos. One classic example, “Corrido De Las Inundaciones” by Dueto Ray Y Lupita, fits several of the characteristics for both genres:


          Real event:                      Hurricane Hilda  


Time and Place:              September 1955, 
                                      Tampico on Mexico’s Gulf coast


          Heavy Casualties:           Sufrieron pobres y ricos
                                                Por donde pasó el ciclón
                                                Pobre el puerto de Tampico
                                                Casi todo lo arrasó.


          Human Culpability:           Todos estos sinsabores
                                                Que sufre nuestra nación
                                                Son causa de los errores
                                                Y tanta equivocación


          Divine Retribution:          ¿No creen ustedes, señores,
                                                Que es un castigo de Dios?


          Creating Community:     Aquí terminó el corrido,
                                              Y gracias por su atención.
                                              Dios quiera que lo ocurrido
                                              Nos sirva como lección,
                                              Que el mexicano este unido
                                              En la alegría y el dolor.


When I was listening to several of these calamitous corridos, I was struck by the vivid images created by the composers—not merely descriptions of the destruction, but the aftermath and human toll. The power of the word preceded the images we now see ubiquitously on TV, mobile phones, and computer screens.


As Mexican corrido expert Vicente T. Mendoza once wrote: “It’s in these cases when the corridista contributes his powers of observation, since he does not leave out the most minor detail, painting tableaus that are surprising for their realism and accuracy with the very horrors of our collective misfortune.” 


Mendoza is quoted in the web page “Corridos de Desastres,” created for students by the late professor James Nicolopulos, a close collaborator of Frontera founder Chris Strachwitz. Mendoza points to a 19th century broadside ballad about a train derailment, “El Descarrilamiento de Temamatla,” as the prototype of the Mexican disaster corrido. (This broadside, and others about Mexico train mishaps that are included in a collection of the University of Texas at Austin, are by famed Mexican printer and engraver José Guadalupe Posada.)


For personal reasons, one of my favorite disaster songs in the Frontera Collection tells of the sudden eruption of a volcano in a cornfield in Michaocán in February 1943. The song “Paricutin,” named for the volcano, starts with the true story of the farmer who was out in his field when the earth started rumbling and spewing smoke and sulphuric gases, smelling like rotten eggs. Terrified, he ran into town – “sin sombrero” – to tell his neighbors the news.


The world’s scientists and the media flooded the location, near the city of Uruapan, to document the eruption. The reporters on hand included my uncle, Luis Gurza Villareal, who filmed a newsreel of the event. The footage, which I saw in Mexico City, shows him barely escaping steaming chunks of lava falling all around him.


Not all disaster songs involve eyewitness accounts or daring close calls. Tex-Mex artist Steve Jordan and his band were on their way from Corpus Christi, Texas, to a concert in San Francisco when they heard the news about the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which hit the San Francisco Bay Area. As the singer recounts in “El Temblor De San Francisco,” they got as far as Houston when they heard the news that the quake had flattened the two-level, 880 freeway “like a tortilla.”


In some songs, the disasters are exclusively personal. In “Centella Maldita,” Los Cardenales del Valle lament the time their mother was struck and killed by lightening. Sad, but one victim does not a disaster genre song make.


And beware the song with the deceptively disastrous title. “El Huracan,” by (you guessed it) Los Huracanes, is not about a lethal weather event. It’s a complaint about someone who blows through life like a hurricane, “spreading destruction wherever it passes.”


The Frontera Collection contains a significant share of songs about disasters in Texas; understandably so, since it specializes in Tex-Mex music of the border region. There are more than a dozen songs about Hurricane Beulah, the strongest storm to hit the Atlantic coast in 1967, making landfall just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande River, spawning a record 115 tornadoes across Texas, causing major floods and claiming almost 700 lives. There are also half a dozen recordings about Hurricane Celia, which slammed into Texas on August 3, 1970, with winds as high as 180 mph in Nueces County, leaving 28 dead in its wake and almost every single building damaged in downtown Corpus Christi.


And since there are also many small, independent labels represented in the collection, we find several songs about correspondingly local disasters that may not otherwise have been recorded. A flurry of Texas labels scrambled to record corridos about a tornado that hit Lubbock, Texas, in May of 1970, three months before Celia. These include two record companies – Jilguero and Shalovo – located in or around Lubbock itself.


Two other local examples: “La Tragedia de Teton,” about the deadly collapse of a dam on the Teton River in Idaho, was released by Don Pepe Records based in Pocatello, Idaho. And “La Tragedia Del Big Thompson” by Los Petroleros Del Norte, a corrido about the deadliest flash flood in the history of Colorado, is on the Alvarado label based in Brighton, Colorado.


But when it comes to colorful description and empathy with the victims, few disaster song match the quality of Cancioneros Acosta’s take on the Los Angeles dam collapse. I looked and looked for the lyrics online, because the vocals on the scratchy 78 rpm in the collection are hard to discern I found one web page devoted exclusively to this song, which was written shortly after the St. Francis Dam burst 88 years ago. It’s on a music website provocatively called “Modernidad y Obsolescencia” (Modernity and Obsolescence).


The last four verses describe the horrors of the 10-foot wall of rushing water crashing into sleeping communities, including a nearby camp of itinerant farmworkers, in the middle of the night. The flood caused power outages and forced residents to flee for their lives in the dark. These lyrics bring home the enormity of the tragedy.


Por el poder infinito estaba ya destinado
el que tantos inocentes debían de morir ahogados.
En menos que te lo cuento, el valle era una laguna,
y la corriente arrastraba sin dejar casa ninguna.

La gente dice familias luchaban desesperadas
cargando a todos sus hijos y sus cosas más amadas.
Se oía quejar lastimero a gente horrorizado 
Auxilio pedía a gritos. ¿Cómo ayudarlos? Dios Santo.

Madre mía no me dejes, decía un infortunado
que si me dejas solito me voy a morir ahogado.
Era una lástima oír a las madres que lloraban
y de dolor angustiadas por sus hijos preguntaban.

Una niña de tres años lloraba inocentemente
al ver que sus padres iban ahogados en la corriente.
Cadáveres se encontraban; era una lástima verlos
Supervivientes ya nunca pudieron reconocerlos.


Next time we’ll look at earthquake songs, including tunes about relatively recent temblors in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

-Agustín Gurza


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