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Song of the Week: "St. Francis Dam Disaster"

This week's song honors the complexity of history, the tragedy of an engineering failure, the power of nature, and the duality of man. I chose it in honor of historian Catherine Mulholland, who died yesterday at the age of 88

She was born into a great Los Angeles family, the granddaughter of William Mulholland, about whom she wrote an acclaimed historical account: William Mulholland & the Rise of Los Angeles. In it she tried to understand the work of a man who was atop his creations when she was born in 1923 - and who, by the time she could remember him well, saw his career ended by the St. Francis Dam disaster. 

I'm really haunted by the idea that William Mulholland ushered in an era of men believing they could control nature - and almost as quickly, ushered it out (except, lets face it, other men probably won't ever let that era leave). So's Frank Black, who with his band the Catholics sings about this: 

There was a well known water master man

He was the king, he could do anything 

The St. Francis Dam Disaster man

Thought she was alright until right around midnight 

When the St. Francis Dam failed - at 11:57 pm - 12 billion gallons of water rushed down San Francisquito Canyon, found the Santa Clara River, and rolled unstoppably to the sea. At that mouth of the river, the water was 2 miles wide. Black pays tribute to nature, too:

Because that water seeks her own

She had a desire to flow

She was looking for somewhere to go

She was a slave to the great metropolis

She was feeling choked

She pushed the wall 'till it broke

Everywhere it is written that Mulholland was profoundly affected by what happened at St. Francis Dam. Broken by it. They found bodies regularly through the fifties, even up till 20 years ago. But there's a working assumption that many were swept out to sea - not least the itinerant farm workers on whose numbers nobody has a good handle. 

It was a real bad night for little Saticoy

El Rio and Montalvo

How many no one really knows

Ventura beach was very scary, boy

Humanity a pile

Mulholland didn't know he had built a dam on a paleomegalandslide, and while he looked for other explanations when it happened, he settled responsibility squarely where he felt it belonged: 

Don't blame anyone else. You just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human, and I won't try to fasten it on anyone else. 

After my experience in New Orleans - trying to understand engineers and their responsibility to their work, trying to communicate with them - the complexity of the craft is unforgettable.

All work has that in common with engineering, done right: Catherine Mulholland's work as a historian, too. I adored what she told a crowd of people 9 years ago:  "I felt that the water story had enough incoherence with 'Cadillac Desert,' 'Chinatown,' muckraking schools of the 1920s and 30s it deserved another look. And I think that's what historians must always do is take another look."

Frank Black - he of the Pixies - uses in "St. Francis Dam Disaster" a low, restrained voice, his old guitarist friend from his old band, and among other things, a banjo, to make a relatively danceable song sorrowful and imbued with the weight of time.

The album where this song lives is Dog in the Sand. It's not on iTunes, but it's worth finding the whole album, you won't regret it.