Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Music

Popular Music Inspired by the Johnstown Flood

Sometimes events and feelings are too hard to put into words. At those times the arts -- music, art, dance, and theater -- help people express themselves. As we've seen, if ever an event was hard to put into words, the Johnstown Flood was! Like artists, musicians tried their best to tell the story of the Flood their way.

In 1889, music recordings (phonographs) were not available in homes. Radio and television had not yet been invented. Instead, people made music themselves or listened to live performers. Many homes had parlors where families gathered to read, tell stories, knit and sew, and make music. Many parlors had pianos or organs, violins, mandolins, or other instruments family members had learned to play. Those who didn't play sang along.

Music didn't just belong to families, but to communities, too. Most towns had park bandstands where bands played during the summer. Many organizations, including schools, churches, ethnic organizations, unions, even neighborhoods, would sponsor bands. They marched in parades and performed at other celebrations. Many of these organizations also had singing societies or choirs. People sang while they went about their daily lives: work songs that made jobs seem easier, drinking songs sung at taverns and parties, and children's songs to keep kids busy. Even without radios or records (or Walkman, Discman, and MP3 players of today), music was a part of everyone's life, even if they just listened or sang along.

Instead of buying recorded songs, people in 1889 bought sheet music at music stores. The stores hired singers and piano players to perform new songs so customers would buy them. It didn't take long for songs composed about the Johnstown Flood to appear in music stores and in parlors all over the nation.

If you can read music, try to play or sing some of these pieces of music. Ask your music teacher to help your class learn the songs and hear the instrumentals. Read the lyrics of the two songs and the notes above the instrumentals:

  • What story is each composer trying to tell?
  • Who is the audience for this music? What message is coming through? How well did each succeed in communicating their messages? How well does the message match the audience?
  • What words does he or she use deliver the message? What emotions does the music express?
  • Compare the story-telling in these songs to the story-telling in the news articles, the survivor stories, and the artists' illlustrations of the Flood. Try matching up illustrations with each piece of music.
  • How well does the cover of the sheet music illustrate the music? Do you you think you picked the best picture to go with the song or did the publisher? Why?
  • What parts of the Flood story does each medium (writing, illustrating, or music) tell best?
  • What parts of the Flood story would you tell through music?

Click on the images below to view a larger image. Each piece of music is also available as a PDF for better printing.

Ballad: "The Johnstown Flood," Joseph Flynn, 1889

PDF version of "The Johnstown Flood"

Ballad: "That Valley of Tears," William Thomas, 1889

PDF version of "That Valley of Tears"

Ballad: "My Last Message," J. P. Skelly, 1889

PDF version of "My Last Message"

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