Shock Horror: Folklore of Disaster 6

SHOCK HORROR: The Folklore of Disaster


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© Warren Fahey

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Most songs emerging from disasters, in contrast to jokes, tend to be extremely sensitive to the subject and in no way humorous. Songs play a different role in folklore and one also needs to accept the inherent performance factor of songs. Folklore has a long history of using songs to document disasters. Of course one could trace the use back to the eighteenth century to those times when the publishers of London’s Seven Dials area employed ballad writers to attend court hearings and then to compose songs detailing the case. Like modern-day newspapers the public preferred all the gory details as expressed in ballads like ‘The Red Barn’ or ‘The Terrible Murder of Maria Martin’. The more salacious the better! Many of our convict transportation ballads had a similar birthplace as they documented the trials and tribulations of those condemned to seven years transportation to the hells of Botany Bay, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur and Moreton Bay. As these songs tend to be an emotional ‘people’s history’ and not necessarily a factual account, they were popular in the repertoire of many traditional song carriers. One could also point to the universal popularity of the tragic Victorian parlour songs like ‘Don’t Sell My Mother’s Picture in the Sale’ and the equally tragic ‘Luggage Van Ahead’.

Here is a partial list of traditional and contemporary songs written and sung about Australian disasters: ‘Death of Alec Robertson’ (aka ‘Jockey’s Lament’ ‘Caulfield Cup Smash’), ‘Ballad of Norman Brown’ (D Hewitt/M.Leydon), ‘Ballad of the Westgate Disaster’ (Lyell Sayer), ‘The Eldorado Mining Disaster’ (aka ‘Brave Dorkins’, ‘The McEvoy Disaster’), ‘Farewell to Tommy Corrigan’, ‘The Gatton Tragedy’, ‘Grace Darling’, ‘Ill-fated Temora Train’, ‘The Sunshine Railway Disaster’, ‘The Westgate Bridge Disaster’ (D. Henderson), ‘Westgate’ (P. Vinnicombe), ‘Wreck of The Dandenong’, ‘Wreck of the Yongla’.

One exception to the rule of avoiding taboo song subjects is the following parody that I included in an earlier book titled ‘Ratbags and Rabblerousers’ (Currency Press, 2000). Not a particularly singable or pleasant song and I suspect it had limited value however it appears to have had considerable circulation, which warrants inclusion in this study.

SEVENTH DAY ADVENTIST (To the tune of “Waltzing Matilda”)

Once a jolly Pastor camped in a caravan,
Under the shade of a Kurrajong tree,
And he sang and he prayed as he watched the baby’s bottle boil,
You’ll be a Seventh-day Adventist like me.

Seven Day Adventist, Seven Day Adventist,
You’ll be a Seventh-day Adventist like me,
And he sang and he prayed as he watched the baby’s bottle boil,
You’ll be a Seventh-day Adventist like me.

Down came Lindy and snatched up Azaria,
She picked up the scissors and stabbed her with glee,
And she smiled as she shoved the baby in the camera bag,
It’s fun to be a Seventh-day Adventist like me.

Out came a dingo nosing around the campfire,
Lindy winked at Michael and said, “It wasn’t me”,
What happened to the baby you put in the camera bag?
Give it to the dingo and you’ll get off free.

Give it to the dingo,
Give it to the dingo,
Give it to the dingo and you’ll get off free.

Up jumped the dingo,
ran past the camera bag,
You’ll never blame her murder on me,
And Azaria’s ghost may be heard as you pass by the Kurrajong tree,
Mummy was the one that did away with me.

Jokes also collide when convenient. The fusion of two joke genres – the disaster joke meets the ethnic slur joke:

Q: Did you hear about the Irish dingo they caught in the Botanical Gardens?
A: It was eating the azaleas.

One of the most horrific disasters in Australian history occurred on April 29 1996 when Martin Bryant randomly attacked visitors at the Port Arthur Historic Site where 34 tourists and staff in the museum’s Broad Arrow Café were shot dead. The nation was shocked by this tragic event and the shock jocks went into overdrive pontificating as only they can. Once again the ‘folk’ responded with humour as if to relieve the tension.

Q: Did you heat that one of the chain stores is opening a new branch at Port Arthur?<
A: Target.

Q: What was not on the menu at the Broad Arrow Cafe?
A: Duck!

In June, 2000, a fire broke out at the Palace Backpacker’s Hostel at Childers, a small farming town 315 kilometres north of the Queensland capital Brisbane. Thirty-four young travellers died in the horrific fire. Police investigations later revealed that the fire had been lit intentionally.

Australians were shocked as the news reports hit world headlines. 

There were several jokes in circulation within the week including this feeble contribution:

Q: Why do Pommy backpackers like Queensland?
A: It’s a great place for a barbecue.

Disasters also produce folk stories. Folklorist Ron Edwards calls these ‘yarns’ however I disagree as they usually do not subscribe to the form of a traditional yarn. Ron, of course, has a good point especially when these stories get the embellishment of time and ultimate exaggeration where truth and fiction meet. In Australia we believe in that adage: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

After Cyclone Tracy flattened the City of Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 there were many stories of bravado and this one seems to have taken the cake!

”Apparently there was a car half in, half out, of a motel swimming pool when this bloke comes along with bunch of keys.  Opens the boot of the car.  Takes out a carton of Foster’s beer.  Shuts boot.  Walks away.  Stops.  Thinks.  Throws keys back over his shoulder into pool and continues to walk away.”

Q: What did Cyclone Tracy say to the palm tree?
A: Hang on to your nuts, boy, this no ordinary blow job.

Other disaster events in Australia produced jokes including the Hoddle Street, Melbourne mass -shooting and this one from a similar shooting incident at Sydney’s Strathfield Plaza

Q: When is the best time to shop at Strathfield Plaza?
A: In the morning, because it’s murder in the afternoon.

Other expressions of folklore contribute to these events. Soon after the Strathfield shooting the Sydney Morning Herald reported an urban myth concerning a sign in that suburb declaring: ‘If you’ve time to kill visit Strathfield Plaza’. Of course no such sign existed however many readers enthusiastically passed the tale on.

I was curious to see what type of jokes would come from the terrorist attacks on America and how soon after the event they would enter and eventually retreat from circulation. I already receive a steady flow of general Internet folklore however, in this instance, I posted a message explaining that I was soliciting any material directly related to the terrorist attacks and why. Despite explaining my reasons it was obvious a delicate matter and, as expected, I found myself on the line. Emails arrived responding that this ‘was no laughing matter’ and ‘surely you cannot be serious’. There was general doubt that this event would actually result in humour. The first documented joke appears to have been circulated three days after the attack and the flow increased every day thereafter rising like a crescendo and falling some two months later. By the second month the World Trade Centre jokes had really slowed down although the Osama bin Laden jokes were experiencing their highest point. By the third month the WTC jokes had virtually ceased despite the fact that the fires were still burning.

The timeframe of disaster joke waves is predictable. In looking at the major Australian disasters mentioned previously it was extremely difficult to find any jokes in current circulation. This, of course, is the very point: their use had well and truly passed and they had absolutely no relevance. We had moved on considering we had reached a ‘closure’ on discussing these disasters. Going back even further to the Maitland Floods (1955), The Hobart Tragedy (1967), Ash Wednesday (1983) or even the Sydney Fires (1994) the jokes had completely disappeared from circulation.

The jokes from the attack on New York seemed to roll out as if late night television presenter Jay Leno was telling them as part of his show opener. Of course the reality is that many people died in this disaster and one has to be both understanding and sympathetic to their families and friends. This is no laughing matter however laugh we apparently must. Many of the jokes are re-hashed versions of old jokes like the following, which was first used in the NASA shuttle explosion:

Q: Where do Americans go on vacation?
A: All over Manhattan