Essentially a Playlist : In Tune With Tragedy

While the images of the Vancouver Olympics are no longer being broadcast on “Canada’s Olympic Network” (biggest surprise: TSN and Sportsnet are buddies, and not competitors), one image that I can’t shake is the death of Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a training run hours before the opening ceremonies. It was a tragic death on a course that yielded many more crashes in luge and bobsled — thankfully, none fatal — and a tragedy compounded by news programs simply referring to Kumaritashvili as “a Georgian luger” because of difficulty in pronouncing his last name. His death and his namelessness in news reports have stuck with me and got me thinking about tragedy in general, which brings us to this week’s playlist:

Patricia Barber — “Miss Otis Regrets” [from The Cole Porter Mix]

I don’t quite know why this was the first song that came to mind when thinking of tragedy, but Cole Porter’s story of why “Miss Otis regrets/she’s unable to lunch today/madam” slowly reveals a tragic tale in verse that sneaks up on you.

Dave Alvin — “Everett Ruess” [from Ashgrove]

Long before Christopher McCandless’ disappearance and death in the wilderness was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, another young wanderer with a connection to the wilderness vanished — though unlike McCandless, 20-year-old artist and writer Everett Ruess was never found. Alvin’s sympathetic telling from Ruess’ perspective is a beautiful song about a tragic adventurer.

Rheostatics — “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” [from Melville]

Most folks have heard Gordon Lightfoot’s original version of this tale of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, but the Statics turned it into an eight-minute-plus epic for their 1991 album. Twenty-nine men lost their lives when the Fitzgerald sank, and from 1975 to 2006 each were remembered by the tolling of the bell at the Mariner’s Church of Detroit in a November service, though the church has apparently changed the practice to eight tolls for the lakes and seaways that surround Detroit.

Furry Lewis — “Kassie Jones” [from the Anthology of American Folk Music]

If you want tragic songs, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is a treasure chest of tragedy, including this tale of train engineer Casey Jones (which here is written as “Kassie” but has also been recorded as “Cayce”) who died near Canton, Mississippi, when a passenger train crashed into a local freight in April 1900. Jones’ real name was John Luther Jones, but his nickname came from his hometown in Kentucky.

J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers — “Last Kiss” [from the Last Kiss Sessions]

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was a brief craze for teenage death songs — also known as “splatter platters” — which chronicled young lovers separated by tragic deaths. I suppose they were the vampire stories of their time . . . “Last Kiss” wasn’t the first (that would be “Teen Angel”) but it’s certainly one of the most famous with its “where oh where can my baby be/the lord took her away from me” chorus.

Hank Snow — “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” [from Songs of Tragedy]

Well, with a title like Songs of Tragedy, this playlist could have been entirely written by country singer Snow (who, it should be pointed out — despite the American perspective of this song — was from Nova Scotia). Told from the perspective of a dying soldier in the Vietnam war, this one’s a real three-hankie affair.

Kronos Quartet — “Lux Aeterna” [from Requiem for a Dream: OST]

I counted two separate Olympic figure skating routines that used this Clint Mansell-penned, Kronos Quartet-performed piece from the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream; plus a Molson Canadian ad using it as a music bed. Two things strike me as odd about this: 1) for some reason, it reached critical mass despite being a decade old, and 2) the movie is a tragic depiction of drug addiction, which makes it a strange fit for jingoistic beer commercials and triple lutzes.

Bee Gees — “Tragedy” [from Spirits Having Flown]

Spirits Having Flown was the follow-up to their gigantic smash hit soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, and, instead of revelling in the coked-out debauchery that likely followed, the brothers Gibb wrote about tragic love (though their definition of tragedy is a little like Alanis Morrissette’s definition of ironic).

Stompin’ Tom Connors — “How The Mountain Came Down” [from Sings Canadian History]

I think it’s been a little while since the playlist provided a mini history lesson, but here’s one for you. In 1903, the mining town of Frank, Alta. (in the Crowsnest Pass) was buried in a rockslide when Turtle Mountain crumbled. Canada’s best historian (sorry, Pierre Berton) recounted this episode on Sings Canadian History, and more recently the event provided the setting for part of Gil Adamson’s acclaimed novel The Outlander