• Albert Park

Songs behind the storms: Music related to natural disasters


The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season has brought potentially record-setting levels of destruction, with over ten hurricanes occurring consecutively. (1) Millions of people joined the mission to provide relief to the victims of this catastrophe through countless means, including but not limited to donating money, giving blood, opening their homes to the displaced, and volunteering on site. In particular, some musicians used their talents and connections to support the cause. For example, Beyoncé collaborated with Colombian artist J. Balvin and Mauritian-French DJ Willy William to release a remix of the Latin song “Mi Gente”, announcing that all of her proceeds will go towards hurricane relief charities for Puerto Rico, Mexico and the other affected Caribbean islands. (2) Lin-Manuel Miranda worked with a long lineup of artists to release “Almost Like Praying,” a hurricane relief single, with earnings going towards the the Hispanic Federation UNIDOS Disaster Relief Fund. (3)

This is of course not the first time music has played a role in humanitarian efforts. With a history nearly dating back to the beginning of humankind, music has an undeniably powerful way of impacting people’s emotions and reactions, especially regarding tragedies. Consequently, many songs have been written in direct response to natural disasters, often in an effort to raise money and awareness about the devastation they caused. Here’s the story behind two classic songs about disasters and how they paved the way for modern charity records:

When the Levee Breaks:

While this blues piece is a well-known classic, mainly owing to Led Zeppelin’s immensely popular rendition, not many people are familiar with the history of the song. Originally written and sang by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929, this tune is one of the many blues songs written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. (4) Caused by heavy rain, the disaster destroyed around 130,000 homes and farms, displacing over 700,000 people. (5) Residents of the area built sandbag walls along the river to stop the flood—known as levees— and some were forced to take shelter on top of them, however, the worsening conditions prompted them to lament about their unstable future, which is where the tune draws its interpretation from. Those who endured the worst were the African Americans in the community, who were often forced at gunpoint to build the levees by the white people who operated the refugee camps while suffering systematic poor treatment from the Red Cross. (6) As a result, the lyrics of this song express the miseries and woes of the oppressed, a nearly universal theme in blues music, “If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break/And the water gonna come in and we'll have no place to stay.” In the end, many ended up having to leave their homes and begin a new way of life.

Although the lyrics express hopelessness, the tune itself is quite upbeat, and like many other blues music served to engage and empower the oppressed by telling their story. (7) On that note, it is important to recognize the resilience and efforts of those who tried to save their homes, whether they were forced to or did it of their own accord. This tune was written before the concept of charity songs was clearly established, however, it has become solidified as a standard in rock music, being covered and sampled by countless artists other than Led Zeppelin. In this way, the voices of the victims of the Great Flood carry on to this day, hopefully helping to ensure that humanity will do more to aid people in similar situations in the future and that minorities will not have to suffer the same oppression during a disaster.

Bangla Desh – The first charity single

Written by Ex-Beatles guitarist George Harrison in 1971, “Bangla Desh” was a single released to raise awareness and funds for the victims of the 1970 Bhola Cyclone and the Bangladesh Liberation War (8). The Bhola Cyclone, widely regarded as the most deadly weather disaster of all time, took the lives of over 500,000 people in East Pakistan—now Bangladesh— and displaced countless more (9). It was Harrison’s friend, Ravi Shankar, a Bengali musician and renowned sitar player, who approached him for help in providing relief for the suffering brought on by these events. The lyrics of the song recollect this story in a frank way, “My friend came to me/With sadness in his eyes/Told me that he wanted help/Before his country dies.”

Rather than attempting the impossible task of articulating the immense tragedy of the disaster as someone who didn’t experience it, Harrison penned the song from an outsider’s perspective; forthrightly claiming that although these events were occurring far away from him, he still felt the need to act. While it could be said that the piece falls short in emotional impact as a result, it is commendable for attempting to raise awareness about the disaster in a genuine, respectful way, while convincing the Western world that they should do their part to end suffering, even if they are not directly impacted by it.

Considered by most musicians and critics to be the first charity single in pop music, the piece was released in advance of the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit concert for the refugees of the East Pakistan, hosted by Harrison and featuring many artists such as Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Billy Preston. The concert would raise over $250,000 for UNICEF, and proceeding album and recording sales would go on to raise much more (10).

Charity records today:

Since Harrison’s contribution, there have been numerous other charity records released in response to various humanitarian issues and natural disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and many more. The majority of these songs involve collaborations among different musicians and producers.

One of the most well known examples of such collaboration is the “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” recording in 2010, where over 70 artists came together to remake the 1985 hit song —written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie for famine relief in Africa — in response to the 7.0 M earthquake which struck Haiti. More than just a massive campaign to raise money and awareness, projects like this symbolize the power of individuals coming together to help those in need.

Known as the universal language, music has the potential to act as a beacon during dark times, bringing people from all walks of life together to create a dialogue about worldwide events such as natural disasters. Whether this dialogue involves telling the stories of those affected, expressing the necessity for everyone to help out, or assuring victims that the world has not forgotten them, it can have a huge impact on how society views and responds to a crisis.

  1. "2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Fast Facts." CNN. October 18, 2017. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/15/us/2017-atlantic-hurricane-season-fast-facts/index.html.

  2. Bach , Natasha. "Beyonce Slays in Mi Gente Remix to Support Hurricane Relief Efforts." Fortune. September 29, 2017. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://fortune.com/2017/09/29/beyonce-mi-gente-remix-benefits-hurricane-victims/.

  3. Aswad, Jem. "Lin-Manuel Miranda and Artists for Puerto Rico Release Hurricane-Relief Song 'Almost Like Praying' (Listen)." Variety. October 06, 2017. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/music/news/lin-manuel-miranda-and-artists-for-puerto-rico-release-hurricane-relief-song-almost-like-praying-listen-1202582541/.

  4. Marshall, Matt. "A Brief History of "When the Levee Breaks"." American Blues Scene. December 31, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2012/03/a-brief-history-of-when-the-levee-breaks/.

  5. The Flood of 1927." Exploring Earth . Accessed October 19, 2017. https://www.classzone.com/books/earth_science/terc/content/investigations/es1308/es1308page05.cfm.

  6. "Race in the 1927 Flood and Katrina." Lake Forest College. Accessed October 19, 2017. https://www.lakeforest.edu/academics/programs/environmental/courses/seniorseminar/2013/students/perry.php.

  7. Nicholls, Tracey . "Music and Social Justice." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.iep.utm.edu/music-sj/#SH1a.

  8. Swanson, Dave. "45 Years Ago: George Harrison Stages Concert for Bangladesh." Ultimate Classic Rock. August 01, 2016. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://ultimateclassicrock.com/concert-for-bangladesh/.

  9. Salley, Jessica. "United Nations Names World's Deadliest Weather Event." NBC Washington . May 18, 2017. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/national-international/Remembering-the-1970-Bhola-Cyclone-422996194.html.

  10. Harris, Keith. "10 Great Concerts for a Cause." Rolling Stone. November 06, 2015. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/10-great-concerts-for-a-cause-20151106/concert-for-bangladesh-1971-20151105.


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