Arts & Life, Music

How music makes sense of disaster

By: Noah Caldwell

It was just before midnight on Thursday, June 20th and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was taking the stage at the Canadian Legion hall in downtown Calgary. The New York-based group, which plays “scuzzy” rock and roll (their words, not mine) was the most anticipated band of the Thursday lineup of the Sled Island festival, an annual gathering of local and international talent that houses comedians, artists, filmmakers and musicians for the better part of a week. The East Village Riverwalk block party had just ended a mere two blocks away, and those who weren’t sauntering home were stumbling to the hall for the show—the trio commenced a gritty set, rumbling into the wee hours of the morning, and culminating in a 25-minute encore that oscillated between melodic and downright unhinged. It was only the second night of the festival, and already a tangible crescendo was growing that was supposed to last all weekend.

In the morning, the remainder of Sled Island was cancelled. For several days the Bow and Elbow rivers had exceeded their banks following heavy rains, and the flooding that had already hit Canmore and High River—“over there” for many Calgarians—was inundating the city mercilessly. By mid-morning on Friday over 75,000 people had been evacuated and the nervous pacing of those trying to get in touch with friends and family had begun across the city. For Sled Island, a year of preparation was trounced by two days of precipitation; scores of shows and showcases featuring hundreds of artists were planned for the weekend, and the insurance bought by the festival didn’t come close to covering wholesale cancellation. With a multitude of grounded musicians milling around the city, accompanying financial misfortune was the retching feeling of music stopped mid-song.

But music scenes don’t remain mute for long, and the problem of having dozens of bands with no place to play was resolved within the day; Calgary’s musical ecosystem again found equilibrium, but this time in an improvised, slapped-together sort of way. Houses and bars that had escaped the flooding began to invite bands in for impromptu performances. “Flood Island” concerts, as the phenomenon quickly came to be known on social media, were widespread and effective. Nova Scotian singer Gianna Lauren played a house party. A fundraising concert put on by two surviving Sled Island venues raised $12,000 for the Red Cross. Dent May played the Tubby Dog hot dog joint, a soiree in which the American singer “leapt on countertops, benches and into the audience.” It was the sort of organic spontaneity that mirrors real life—an atmosphere that music festivals bend over backwards to achieve via branding and re-branding and alternative venues and overly lax look-the-other-way drug policies.

There is an obvious phoenix-from-the-ashes moment here, but perhaps we should be interested more in the questions that follow such a moment: how do we make sense of destruction and creation coexisting so intimately? Shouldn’t a disaster be a time for mournful quietude, for repose and recovery? How does art grow from sadness?

Several references poke their heads up as I look around for ways to answer—or at least tickle and tease—these questions. I have always admired Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s opinion of the “tortured artist” and whether or not misery aids the artistic process: “It’s a very damaging mythology….the part of me that is able to create, managed to create in spite of the problems I was having. Almost as if that was the only healthy part of me.” Pardon the gratuitous metaphorical leap, but if the city is Jeff Tweedy, then the collective musical output in the days following the Calgary flood is the “healthy” part of his soul that can still yell or sing or harmonize over the sound of the oncoming waters. Artistic creation coexists with destruction only so it can spite it with an obstinate resilience.

It follows that art generally, and music in particular, has the power not only to spite sadness but also to explain it. Countless news reports and government briefings have, and will continue to, explain objectively what happened over the course of a few days in Calgary, enumerating damage and monetary loss, and predicting all too unreliably when “cleanup” will be over. But a song can mourn, lament, chastise, uplift, berate, and rejoice all in four minutes time. (This is akin to Salman Rushdie’s point that literature and politics “fight for the same territory,” in terms of creating meaning from an event.) A song can ask us rhetorical questions that ignite reflection; take Springsteen’s lyrics from 1973 about a veteran returning home from Vietnam: “Have you thrown your senses to the war, or did you lose them in the flood?” (It should be noted here that the “flood” reference was not purposeful, though if you’d like to draw some meta-comparisons, be my guest.) In one line, Springsteen was asking both the veteran and the American public as a whole where their senses had gone concerning the conflict in Indochina.

Perhaps a real world analogue to the Calgary flooding would be helpful. Near the end of 1926 the Mississippi River reached unprecedented water levels, drenching as many as ten different states along its banks. Between Christmas and April of the following year 16.5 million acres were flooded, 1,000 people were killed, and up to a million were displaced. Southern Louisiana was hardest hit on April, 15th, when 15 inches of rain fell in 18 hours. Levees upstream from New Orleans broke, flooding most of the Plaquemines parish (the levees that held out were subsequently dynamited by political bosses in an attempt to save the rich—white—neighborhoods by flooding the poor—black—ones).

Nothing in Louisiana was immune to the effects of the Great Flood of 1927.  Huey Long, a populist politician, won the governor’s office the following year by denouncing the callous disregard for the poor during and after the flood. President Coolidge’s hollow promises to those in refugee camps cost him the African American vote. The outflow of poor black families from the south—and into, mostly, Chicago—changed the demographics of both regions irreversibly.

But the greatest cultural effect—the high water mark on the post-flood collective psyche, if you will—was musical. As David Evans of the University of Memphis puts it, “the most varied and intense artistic reaction to the flood came from blues singers and composers.” Blue Belle, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sippie Wallace and other colorfully-pseudonymed performers wrote songs about the flood’s power; all are laments for a broken homeland that can’t be fixed. Levees (really, their mechanical failure) became metaphors for the inadequate safety nets afforded to the poor black farmer. You could say that such destruction and sadness was easy pickings for the misery-prone genre of the blues. Or, you could say that the genre was created out of such destruction and sadness, and gave it a reason to spread to other areas—ever wondered why New Orleans and Chicago are the two cities most associated with the blues?

The musical side effects of the disaster were not fleeting, and the folkloric power of the flood lasted longer than the generation that witnessed it. The most famous song about the flood was written in the 1970s by Randy Newman (yes, that Randy Newman whose crooning guides you through “Toy Story”), called “Louisiana 1927.” Its prelude is orchestral and comforting, invoking the old south of plantations and porches and sweet tea. That mythologized past is promptly dissipated by the piano’s entrance, and by Newman drawling, “What has happened down here is the wind has changed.” Place-names abound (Plaquemines, Evangeline), connecting Newman and the listener with the land, culminating in the George Harrison-esque mantra of “Louisiana, Louisiana.”

Newman was born sixteen years after the flood, so he certainly didn’t witness the disaster, nor did he create “Louisiana 1927” as an archival record of history like Pliny the Younger at the destruction of Pompey. But in 2005 the levees broke, again, and the most marginalized people in New Orleans were, again, disproportionately affected. Folkloric dirges like Newman’s were the strands connecting Hurricane Katrina to the Great Flood of 1927, connections that provided a cross-historical sympathy to lean on. As Geoffrey Himes wrote in the New York Times, “Lousiana 1927” became “the state’s unofficial anthem in the wake of the 2005 tragedy.”

To my knowledge, the flooding in Calgary and southern Alberta has not disinterred racial divides, or revealed political corruption, or forced lasting demographic changes. Nor do I know whether any of the artists playing at the impromptu “Flood Island” shows sang about the flood itself, or even offered songs of reflection relevant to the crisis at hand (finding a setlist for a concert at a hotdog stand is endlessly frustrating). But I do know that every person listening and tapping his or her foot to the beat was doing so because it meant that the flood hadn’t won. (And I’ll bet you tickets to next year’s Sled Island festival that songs will be written about Calgary, 2013.)

For more flood-resistant musical endeavors check out the Calgary Folk Festival this weekend—the organizers have rearranged several venues to ensure the music would go on despite water damage. Among others, Steve Earle is playing, and I can’t think of another raspy folk legend more suited to articulating woes and providing artistic solace all in one go.


Noah Caldwell, a native Vermonter, studied history at McGill and politics in Edinburgh. He now lives in Colorado and studies the complex dynamics between waiting tables and launching a new media journalism career.