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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?
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Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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#TBT
When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

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