Regarding my song “Monongah” and writing The Great Disaster Song
By Robert Rial
I suppose I am a bit morbid, but historic criminal masterminds and epic disasters, especially ones causing massive body counts, have always been favorite song topics of mine. So far, I have written a song about John Dillinger and his demise outside the Biograph Theater, a song about the infamous serial murderer H.H. Holmes, who ran amuck during Chicago’s 1893 Colombian Exposition, a song about a Chicago mob hitman and boss named Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, and two mining disaster ballads, one with a happy ending and one with a sad ending.
The song with a happy ending is called “Nine For Nine” and tells the tale of the 2002 coal mining rescue of nine men at Quecreek Mine, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The first line of the chorus is literally stolen from a headline I read on a Chicago Sun-Times paper as I walked by a newspaper box the day after the men were rescued:
“They tied themselves together so they wouldn’t die alone.”
I saw this headline and immediately thought to myself, wow, if that isn’t a lyric waiting to be written about in further detail. So I got some change out of my pocket and bought that Sun-Times, read about the rescue on the blue line train on my way home, and proceeded to write the song that very night.
But a rescue is hardly a great disaster. For this, we must move on to the subject at hand, “Monongah”. For a more complete outline of events, please visit the links below. But to give you the short and sweet version, the worst coal mining disaster in American history took place, killing close to 500 people virtually instantaneously on December 6, 1907. The deaths left 250 widows and more than 1000 fatherless children. It should be noted that ‘07 was a particularly bad year for mining deaths, with 3,242 American coal miners dying in that one year. The Monongah disaster paved the way for mining reform. Many safety precautions that could have prevented the explosion were simply not employed that day at Monongah, such as safety lamps (like the ‘Davy Lamp’), permissible explosives and mine preparation techniques. The disaster is believed to have been caused by the ignition of a mixture of coal-dust and methane, or “fire damp”, which caused an explosion that tore through Shafts #6 and #8. One might think the miners were killed by fire, but actually most died from suffocation due to the majority of their oxygen being consumed by the explosion. This is referred to as “after damp”. As you can see, there are numerous details in this story which I was able to mine during the writing of “Monongah”.
Writing disaster themed songs partially originated for me in the writing of several break up songs. Break up songs are not necessarily disaster songs, but they can be. Parting ways is sometimes the most disastrously painful thing humans can go through. Some of my best material came out of desiring catharsis after a traumatic break up. When life itself was a disaster. This harnessing and release of sorrow through song is powerful.
Writing the great disaster song is about embracing the absurdity and senselessness that accompany such events, and about reporting the facts in an entertaining way. Embellishing the truth is acceptable if it makes the story better, but I have found that most of these tales are so horrible that sprucing them up with hyperbole is unnecessary. There are as many different ways to approach a disaster ballad as there are types of disasters. Industrial disasters are sometimes due to criminal negligence, but seldom due to malicious sabotage. There is a faceless anonymity to a natural disaster. The chaos and randomness defy logic.
What is next on my disaster song plate? Many people dying all at the same time is very fascinating to me. I plan on exploring that theme more in the future, if I have not chosen to write some happier material. Perhaps a joyful ditty about the atomic bomb…