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Music History #8: "New York Mining Disaster 1941"

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“New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones)”
Written by Barry and Robin Gibb (1967)
Performed by Bee Gees

The Music

When the Bee Gees debut US single was released in April 1967, a lot of people thought it was The Beatles masquerading as another band. Even the name Bee Gees was read as code for “Beatles Group.” But within a year, brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb established themselves not only as hit makers in their own right, but as chart rivals to the Fabs. “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the first of thirty-some hits, is one of those rare pop songs in which the title never appears in the lyrics. Most people still refer to it by its subtitle “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones.” Inspired by the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966, the song was an international hit, reaching #14 on the US Charts. It has since been covered by David Essex, Chumbawumba and Martin Carthy.

http://youtu.be/KCRqAzCevsY

The History

On the morning of October 21, 1966, a massive heap of coal waste tumbled down a mountainside into the small village of Aberfan, South Wales, demolishing an elementary school and several houses, and burying three hundred townsfolk, most of them children.

As word of the disaster spread, hundreds of people from neighboring towns came to Aberfan, picks and shovels in hand, hoping to help with the rescue. 145 children were pulled and rescued from the rubble. Local miners continued to work around the clock for days to clear the debris.

In the end, 144 people died. 116 of them were kids, mostly between the ages of 7 and 10.

Coal and Water Don’t Mix

Coal mining in Aberfan began around 1869. A hundred years later, one of the biggest problems the town faced was how to dispose of the waste material generated from the mining. Their solution, as in many coal mining towns, was to pile it in trash heaps – or “tips,” as they’re called in the UK – close to the mines. In Aberfan, the tips were situated on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the town. It was a painstaking process to transfer tons of coal waste up the side of the mountain. A series of trolley cars hauled it to a crane, which then dumped the waste on the tip.

There was a problem though. South Wales has a generally wet climate, which keeps the soil moist. On top of that, many of the coal tips were placed over underground springs. In the years before the disaster, water from the slopes had been a perennial issue for Aberfan. Regular floods caused much damage, leaving behind slimy black deposits of coal sludge. The townspeople repeatedly asked the National Coal Board, who owned the mine, for help in addressing the water problem, but nothing was done.

The resulting wet ground made for an unstable base, and that’s ultimately what caused thousands of tons of coal sludge to break free of the tip and rush into the town below. The landslide was described as moving like water, but with twice the density.

After the disaster, Aberfan’s flooding problem was solved through the construction of a simple culvert.

Aberfan Then and Now

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On October 25, 1966, a mass funeral was held for the children. The Aberfan Disaster Fund raised over $1 million with donations from around the world. The money was used to help rebuild the town and compensate the grieving families. (Shamefully, the National Coal Board demanded that a large chunk of the funds be used to pay for removal of the tips that they had built.) As a result of the disaster, The Mines and Quarries Act of 1969 was passed, which helped to ensure that no disused tips would pose a danger to other mining towns.

For Aberfan, it’s been a slow rebuilding process. After the tragedy, a sense of guilt settled over the town for not taking stronger measures to address the problem with the tips. Over half the survivors of the disaster have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As of 2011, all of the coal mines are closed. But that has robbed the town of its main source of income.

In April 2012, forty-six years after the disaster, Queen Elizabeth visited Aberfan to open a new primary school. Back in 1966, the Queen was criticized for waiting eight days to visit the scene of the catastrophe. She has called it her “biggest regret” in her sixty years on the throne.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Pop Culture
How a Throwback Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts
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Epic Records

The '90s airwaves were full of catchy, confusing pop hits. What exactly is a "chica cherry cola"? Did anyone ever figure out the correct syncopation of "MMMBop"? Why was Deee-Lite grooving to Dr. Seuss books? And who were all those Rays that Jimmy was singing about?

It's been nearly two decades, yet 1998's "Are You Jimmy Ray?"—the one and only hit by gloriously coiffed British pop rocker Jimmy Ray—stands out as one of the more perplexing hits of the era. For starters, whose idea was it to mix twangy '50s rockabilly with the sunny '90s alt-rock style of Smash Mouth? The combo clearly worked, as Ray's retro-modern anomaly reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him a slot opening for the Backstreet Boys on a 1998 U.S. tour.

And then there are the questions built into the song itself. "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Slim Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" Jimmy Ray sings in the chorus, apparently echoing things he has been asked on a regular basis. The only answer he provides, of course, is another question: "Who wants to know?" Factor in the music video, wherein Ray and a bunch of hip-hop dancers cavort around outside a trailer home, and this mystery seems like something David Lynch and Carson Daly might've somehow cooked up together.

Fortunately, Jimmy Ray is on LinkedIn, and last fall, the 46-year-old London native wrote a candid and insightful article explaining how he—a guy who sounded like Sugar Ray auditioning for Sun Records—scored such a massive pop hit.

"I have been asked questions about it that surprised me," Ray says of his signature song. "Surprising considering the music press received the song as nothing more than a boneheaded piece of self-promotion."

"Are You Jimmy Ray?" might have been self-promotion, but it wasn't boneheaded. A longtime fan of '50s rock, Ray had actually gotten his start in a '90s techno group called A/V. After they split up, he landed a management deal with Simon Fuller, the guy who created the Spice Girls. Someone at Ray’s label suggested he collaborate with Conall Fitzpatrick, the pop songsmith behind the British duo Shampoo's 1994 hit "Trouble." Fitzpatrick obviously had a flair for booming drums and repetitive catchphrases, and before the two even sat down for their first writing session, he had come up with the "Are You Jimmy Ray?" hook.

Ray wonders whether Fitzpatrick might have been "subconsciously influenced" by the cryptic "Who is Christian Goldman?" graffiti seen all over London at the time. Fitzpatrick claims he got the idea from the 1988 film Midnight Run; in one scene, Charles Grodin's character asks a bartender, "Who's in charge here?" to which the fellow replies, "Who wants to know?" As for all those "Rays"—pre-Elvis teen idol Johnnie Ray, "father of the power chord" Link Wray, King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray—they were also Fitzpatrick's idea. But Jimmy Ray knew what Fitzpatrick was going for.

"Retro heroes and heroines who symbolized my own cultural interests from music, film, and … motoring haha!" Jimmy writes in summary. "I couldn't even drive a car at this time."

Portraits of Johnnie Ray, Fay Wray, and Link Wray.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Eric Frommer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY–SA 2.0

Fitzpatrick knew the kind of stuff Jimmy dug, but the two weren't 100 percent on the same page. Working with Fitzpatrick's gear, in Fitzpatrick's studio, Ray felt like his debut album was slipping out of his control. "Before then, I had always been in the pilot's seat making my music, so let's just say there was a teeny-weeny bit of tension right from the off," Ray wrote.

For instance, he had to fight to replace the original fake-sounding synth-bass with "a different, more realistic synth bass." He alludes in the LinkedIn piece to other battles, but ultimately, he might not have pushed too hard. After all, he didn't think "Are You Jimmy Ray?" was going to be a single.

Alas, the execs at Epic Records knew they had a hit on their hands, and just like that, Jimmy Ray was all over the airwaves with a song that "wasn't really my idea." While Ray insisted that he respects and admires Fitzpatrick for creatively handling the pressure of having to produce a hit record for a major label, the tone of the LinkedIn piece suggests that Ray might've gone a different route if he'd been in the driver's seat.

Ray actually may get that do-over, as the singer is prepping a new album on his own La Rocka Records tentatively titled Live to Fight Another Day, which is set for an October release. He has posted some demos online, including one Morrissey-esque cover of Elvis Presley's "Devil In Disguise." It’s a cool track that sounds as though he's moved beyond the "pop-a-billy hip-hop" that put him on the charts back in the day. And with other '90s acts making the most of nostalgia ticket sales (after all, Jimmy Ray's old pals the Backstreet Boys have a world tour planned for their 25th anniversary next year), it seems like the right time to revive the old question of just who this Jimmy Ray fellow is.

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