David Hinckley told the story behind the old topical folk song a few years ago in the New York Daily News:
The last major storm that smashed directly into Galveston, in 1900, was the deadliest hurricane in American history, which among many other things made it inevitable someone would write a song about it.
Actually, there were many songs. But the one that has endured, deservingly, is called “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm” – which, from what we know, began life as a spiritual in the black church.
At least the church seems to be the first place it surfaced into public view. Back in those days, almost every major public event inspired songs, which spread like text messages spread today, so the precise origin of songs is often hard to pin down.
But “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm” fit perfectly into the black spiritual tradition – a tale of hardship and trouble and the sometimes inscrutable hand of God with which we troubled sinners in this hard mortal world simply had to live.
Part of it went like this:
Galveston had a seawall
To keep the water down,
But the high tide from the ocean
Washed water over the town.
Wasn’t that a mighty storm!
Oh, wasn’t that a mighty storm with water!
Wasn’t that a mighty storm
That blew all the people away!
Their trumpets gave them warning,
“You’d better leave this place.”
They never thought of leaving
Till death looked them in the face.
Death like a cruel master,
As the wind began to blow,
Rode out on a train of horses.
Death calls, you gotta go.
As Hinckley notes, it’s not a happy song, but it’s the one I’ve had happily ringing in my ears since the trend of the election returns became evident last night. I first heard Tom Rush sing it back in the sixties, and he returned to it for a rousing performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival last year (video below).