Yes, I guess technically every song tells a story. What we are interested in however are the songs that tell actual stories -stories about cowboys, and love and the day the music died. Songs are the smells of the ears, they can transport us places in an instant. All this week we are exploring these story songs and getting all Springsteen-y because it's winter now and all we want to do is stay inside and listen to music. - Dylan Wise
One of the many reasons that I love Frank Black as a songwriter is that he takes the unexpected path a lot of times in his songs. He can write a great linear song, too, but some of my favorites of his have an angle that take it to an unexpected place. When you see a song called "St. Francis Dam Disaster," you can pretty easily guess the broad strokes - it is about a dam breaking, and the ruin it leaves in its path.
However, what Black does is personify the water as a female, trapped in an unhappy life. A phrase used multiple times in the track is that "water seeks her own." It is clear that her purpose is not fulfilling, and she is lonely and sad. She feels confined by the mundane existence of being trapped behind walls, being used for purposes not her own. It is a striking image, water as slave, and you can almost empathize with the water - we can all recall times of feeling trapped and manipulated. And so, at the end of the first verse, when she breaks free, it is a cathartic and happy moment.
It becomes clear, rather quickly, that this isn't a cause for celebration at all. Black shifts the focus to what the water encounters along the way - 54 miles, FIFTY FOUR MILES, of wreckage. Keep in mind that this isn't a fictional story - this actually happened in 1928. Black takes the listener on the path with the water, going from town to town, ripping trees and poles from the group, and killing hundreds of people. At its highest point, it was over fifty feed high and a mile wide. Just think about that for a second - water, the height of a 5-story building, a mile wide, coming through your town. This is an absolutely terrifying event.
And yet, again, the lyrics don't necessarily paint that picture. Sure, there are enumerations of casualties, and nowhere are the tragic elements dismissed. But the song isn't about the damage - the song is about the water. And so, the focal point of the song is the water running towards its final destination - its home in the ocean.
The titular man in the song is William Mulholland, an Irish engineer who made his name designing the aqueduct system in Los Angeles (and also the subject of another Frank Black song "Ole Mulholland" from the equally essential Teenager of the Year). This is the event that destroyed his career, as only 12 hours earlier, he inspected the dam and declared it safe. And so, the song is tragic on a few levels - the nearly 600 dead, the towns destroyed, as well as the storied career cut short.
And yet, the song ends on a quasi-positive note - as the water hits the sea, "now and forever she would go." Her life now is unencumbered by restrictions, and is only limited by the size of the oceans and the strength of her motivation.