Wasn’t That a Mighty Day
African American Blues and Gospel Songs on Disaster
A complex portrait of music, memory, and commemoration through a unique lens
Wasn’t That a Mighty Day: African American Blues and Gospel Songs on Disaster takes a comprehensive look at sacred and secular disaster songs, shining a spotlight on their historical and cultural importance. Featuring newly transcribed lyrics, the book offers sustained attention to how both Black and white communities responded to many of the tragic events that occurred before the mid-1950s.
Through detailed textual analysis, Luigi Monge explores songs on natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes); accidental disasters (sinkings, fires, train wrecks, explosions, and air disasters); and infestations, epidemics, and diseases (the boll weevil, the jake leg, and influenza). Analyzed songs cover some of the most well-known disasters of the time period from the sinking of the Titanic and the 1930 drought to the Hindenburg accident, and more. Thirty previously unreleased African American disaster songs appear in this volume for the first time, revealing their pertinence to the relevant disasters.
By comparing the song lyrics to critical moments in history, Monge is able to explore how deeply and directly these catastrophes affected Black communities; how African Americans in general, and blues and gospel singers in particular, faced and reacted to disaster; whether these collective tragedies prompted different reactions among white people and, if so, why; and more broadly, how the role of memory in recounting and commenting on historical and cultural facts shaped African American society from 1879 to 1955.
"For decades, folklorists and social historians have called upon vernacular music recordings to illustrate the impact of tragedies and disasters on the lives of middle- and working-class white Americans. Now, blues expert Luigi Monge offers us an unprecedentedly thorough study that demonstrates that the Black American community was just as creative in articulating its own responses to the many types of tragedies to which they fell victims. This volume is sure to find its place among those classics of scholarship that prove that songs and ballads are as important documents of American social history as are newspapers and magazines."- Norm Cohen, retired physical chemist and author of American Folk Songs: A Regional Encyclopedia
"Luigi Monge’s account of African American songs about natural and human-caused disasters is as accurate as it is comprehensive and offers vivid and detailed depictions of the events which sparked the songs’ creation. With insight and respect, Monge explores the ways that singers and their audiences found meaning in the meaningless, thought about the unthinkable, and bore the unbearable. Wasn’t That a Mighty Day is a mighty achievement."- Chris Smith, freelance historian and discographer of blues and gospel music