Music Mondays: Cold Missouri Waters

Welcome to another Music Monday.

Today: climate change; but I’m going to push the “songs about science” envelope a little. There’s a link to today’s release of the new IPCC report – I’ll explain.

Here’s the Canadian folksinger James Keelaghan with Cold Missouri Waters. It tells the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, in Montana, in which 13 firefighters died.

It’s heartbreakingly beautiful, but is it about science? When Keelaghan wrote it, in the mid-1990s, he might not have thought so. But consider this:

August ’49, North Montana
The hottest day on record; the forest tinder dry
Lightning strikes
in the mountains
I was crew chief at the jump base
I prepared the boys to fly…

August 5, 1949 wasn’t actually the hottest day on record in Montana (that’s a bit of poetic license), but hot, dry weather indeed contributed to the fire’s ignition and rapid spread. That hot, dry weather is becoming more common as our climate changes; the last few years have seen wildfire seasons more intense than ever, and there’s no reason to think the situation is going to improve soon. Heat waves and wildfires may even be the climate-change piece that makes the most headlines and makes the climate emergency obvious to the most people. On top of that: the fire started on a slope in Mann Gulch that was vegetated largely with cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass that changes fire dynamics because its aboveground biomass dies and dries early in the season. The native perennial and sage communities that cheatgrass replaces don’t burn as easily. So the events of Cold Missouri Waters are becoming more frequent (extreme fires) or more likely (firefighter deaths). I wonder if Keelaghan would think of his song, now, as a song at least partly about science – about climate change and the impact of invasive species?

And now for this week’s I-just-like-it bonus: this is a summer series, so let’s indulge in a summer song*. Here’s Milky Chance with Flashed Junk Mind.

Cold Missouri Waters tells a story, but Flashed Junk Mind is pretty cryptic. It’s fun, though.

© Stephen Heard  August 9, 2021

Image: Smokejumper. US Bureau of Land Management/National Interagency Fire Center via

*^No, no, not Patio Lanterns!  My Canadian readers will know the eighties summer anthem Patio Lanterns. If you’re like me, you can’t help liking the song at least a little (go on, admit it, I know it’s embarrassing; but at least there’s something about the drums coming in here), while simultaneously recoiling when it’s played again, for the eighteenth time since you switched from the other radio station because it was playing Patio Lanterns too much… Even Kim Mitchell has been known to suggest that he’s thoroughly tired of Patio Lanterns.


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