And we continue for a Monday with our series on songs that could, if heard in the right frame of mind, legitimately bring a tear to the eye of the listener. And today’s song was the first chart single for the BeeGees, a pop song so eccentric that it was initially mistaken by some for a pseudonymous Beatles single.
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On “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the accent is wrong for the Beatles, of course, and Robin Gibb’s voice seems unmistakable now, but it wasn’t a completely ridiculous notion. In 1967, people were still learning about all the things Lennon, McCartney, and their studio geniuses could do, so a voice that didn’t sound quite right wouldn’t necessarily have ruled out Beatle involvement, and Robin Gibbs’ natural nasality and mannered, Lennon-esque phrasing might legitimately bring the more established artists to mind. Along with the up-front strummy acoustic guitars, the almost-buried and ominously humming backing vocals behind Robin on the chorus, the abrupt drop from the faster, fuller chorus to the subdued, echoing second verse, the little violin phrase at the 50-second mark — all fair Beatle-isms, and the melody of the couplet that ends the second verse is pure McCartney.
But the aforementioned couplet is “Have they given up and all gone home to bed/Thinking those who once existed must be dead,” which is far from incapable, but not exactly Beatles-quality either. And anyway, as “New York Mining Disaster 1941″ — at that time subtitled “(Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones?)” — worked its way to respectable chart heights, reaching 12 in the UK, 14 in the U.S., listeners began to realize that there was something special about the BeeGees in their own right. Indeed, also released in ’67 were the R&B-ish “To Love Somebody,” the strange, proto-proggy “Holiday,” and the monster international hit “Massachusetts.”
Intentional or unintentional Beatle-isms aside, “New York Mining Disaster” is an affecting song in its own right, one side of a conversation between two miners who are trapped and losing hope. The first lines are unforgettable:
In the event of something happening to me
There is something I would like you all to see.
It’s just a photograph of someone that I knew
“Someone that I knew” — he’s already referring to himself in the past tense.
Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what it’s like on the outside?
Don’t go talking too loud,
You’ll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.
One might think from the question that perhaps Mr. Jones is someone he’s communicating with on the outside, but no:
I keep straining my ears to hear a sound,
Maybe someone is digging underground
Or have they given up and all gone home to bed
Thinking those who once existed must be dead?
The singer is simply showing a picture of his wife to his fellow miners, perhaps hoping one of them will remember it and tell her, if they survive and he does not.
Though one might wish for slightly stronger lyrics, “New York Mining Disaster” packs a lot of emotional power into two minutes 10. Robin Gibb, though eventually superseded as lead singer by Barry and his jet-engine falsetto, was a gifted pop singer with a restrained style that could support a great weight of emotion. He was just 17 when “New York Mining Disaster” was recorded, and he was already an artist in his prime.
The BeeGees said in later years that the song, despite the title, referred to the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in Wales. Perhaps with the Aberfan incident so fresh in the public memory — the investigation and related legal action continued well into 1967 — songwriters Robin and Barry Gibb chose not to appear to be directly exploiting the event. But the fact that the doomed miner’s interlocutor is a “Mr. Jones” — Jones is the most common surname in Wales — is likely an elliptical reference to Aberfan.