by DJ El Toro
There just aren’t enough songs about naval mishaps.
Seriously. For years, Seattle entertainment juggernaut Dina Martina has been promoting her alleged album, Songs of Maritime Tragedy. But I have yet to see a copy, and suspect the holdup is due to the sheer paucity of suitable material. You’ve got “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by the late Gordon Lightfoot, no problem. If you want to cast the net wide, you could include the themes from The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic, “The Morning After” and “My Heart Will Go On,” which are certainly tragic in their own special way. There’s “The Sinking of the Titanic,” by Gavin Bryars, but that’s not really a song — much as I’d love to hear Dina sink her teeth into more avant garde contemporary classical music.
This was not always the case. In the early half of the last century, a dinghy couldn’t go off course without inspiring a sheaf of new ditties. Take, for example, People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938. The first disc of this 3-CD set, “Man V Machine,” features no less than seven originals about the sinking of the Titanic. My personal favorites are “El Mole Rachamin (für Titanik),” a timely prayer committed to vinyl by Cantor Joesph Rosenblatt, and the Dixon Brothers’ “Down With The Old Canoe,” which sounds awfully sprightly given the grim subject. And while none of the 70 songs collected here address the topic, one imagines the RMS Lusitania, torpedoed in 1915, inspired a few pop music tributes, too.
Though no less compelling, the other two volumes of People Take Warning, “Man V Nature” and “Man V Man (And Woman, Too),” seem more au courant. Hurricane Katrina inspired a slew of eloquent eulogies-in-song. Thanks to Nick Cave, murder ballads continue to be downright trendy; I expect to hear “Poor Ellen Smith” on American Idol any day now. But shipwrecks? Not so much. I appreciate that loss of life at sea is a grave matter, but if I must hear about such tragedies, far better for the words to come from the mouth of a professional entertainer — and set to a jaunty tune — than another talking bobble-head doll with helmet hair on Fox or CNN.
So here’s a challenge to struggling songwriters: Next time you’re feeling creatively blocked, rather than ruminating about your loathsome ex- for the umpteenth time, do a little research on the demise of the S.S. Andrea Doria instead. And perhaps, if the fates favor you, the end product will someday make its way into the bosom of a truly unsinkable vessel; Dina has to make that record eventually.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org.