Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death Words and Music by Pete Sutherland
Pete was born in Vermont and grew up in the rural, central part of the state. But he went to Bloomington, Indiana to live while he worked with the legendary trio Metamora. With his cohorts Grey Larsen and Malcolm Dalglish he created four albums of thrilling instrumental and lyrical folk music. But there was a measure of home-sickness at work, and Pete would cope with that by reading collections of Vermont folk songs and New England folklore; books like the Helen Hartness Flanders’ The New Green Mountain Songster.
In one of the books he found an old poem that recounted the terrible summer of 1816, during which snowstorms and killing frosts destroyed most of the crops of farmers all over the Northeast. The poem recounts the dark days of the year which had no summer, and the generosity of one farmer who was able to save enough of his corn crop to help keep his neighbors from starving. Other states have claimed the kind farmer, and of course, had their own history of the terrible time.
Growing up in Vermont, Pete had been aware of the story from as far back as the fourth grade. As an adult, he had more of an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the event: the eruption of the volcano in Southeast Asia, the diminished solar activity, the lingering disruption of the War of 1812, and other factors that created the ‘perfect storm’ of misery that swept over the region.
In this era of ‘just in time’ delivery, trucking in strawberries from Oregon and lettuce from California, we take so much for granted. But even to people who were used to living close to the land, these killing frosts must have seemed like the wrath of an unforgiving god. Within the year a third of the population of New England had moved toward new homes in the west. It is said that the "Year without a Summer" helped shape the settling of the American heartland.
Pete says that for him a new song almost always starts with the lyrics. But in this case, he had an idea on the fiddle that at first he thought might be developed as a shape-note hymn. It involved an attractive dissonance, a riff that walked up the scale to land on the flatted seventh on a strong beat.
This mournful motif insinuates itself into the listener’s ear by dwelling in that seven-six, dissonance-resolution cradle, where the sad lyrics can be most strongly supported. This flat-seventh scale degree is characteristic of the Mixolydian mode.
This is a scale that we haven’t talked about in detail. It’s one of the seven modes mentioned in the article on modes in "The Songwriter’s Almanac." With only seven notes, using just the white keys on the piano, we can represent the seven modes by simply starting on a different note each time.
The Mixolydian is the fifth mode, that is, it’s played by starting on the fifth note of the major scale. If we use only the white keys of the piano, the fifth note is G. G is the ‘dominant’ degree of the scale of C. This is why the Mixolydian mode is sometimes called the “dominant mode.”
When we play only the white keys from C to C we hear a scheme of whole-steps and half-steps which we know as the common major scale — two equal groups of four notes called tetrachords. Each is characterized by a whole-step (one black key in between), another whole-step (one black key in between), and then a half-step (no black key). We hear these notes as “do-re-mi-fa.”
Then after another whole-step we we start of the fifth note of the scale with the next tetrachord and the same scheme of two whole-steps and one half-step. This we recognize as “so-la-ti-do.” Play the white keys on the piano from C to the C above it, and you will see this relationship clearly.
Playing a scale beginning on each of the seven white keys results in a different arrangement of whole-steps and half-steps. These are the modes. From C up to C is the Ionian mode, which is what we know as the major scale. Starting on D creates a scale with a flatted third and a flatted seventh. We know this as the Dorian mode. This flatted seventh scale degree is called a subtonic. The normal seventh is called a leading-tone and it wants to resolve upward to the octave while the flat seventh wants to resolve downward to the sixth.
Since Pete’s song is written using the Mixolydian mode, we have a scale with a major third but a flatted seventh. But the song is played in the key of D, so this requires a little adaptation. To make the normal D scale conform to the intervals of the Mixolydian mode, we have to make sure that we have the F# as the major third and C natural as the flat seven.
This is the same interval that is so effective in the love song from West Side Story. You hear it as a dramatic leap from the D to the C above it on “There’s a place for us.” The song is not written in the Mixolydian mode but is a good example of the use of this minor-seventh interval falling back to the sixth, especially when these notes are sung on strong beats.
“In the time of the sorrowful famine year” is heard with that dissonant flat seventh rocking back to the sixth on ‘sorrowful’ and ‘famine’ in a way that really locks the language and the music into a memorable hook. Again, in the next two lines, the synergy of the dissonance and consonance has the same effect on the strong beats associated with the words ‘fertile’ and ‘sheltered farm.’
One reason that that sixth note seems like a place of relative rest, a relief from the dissonant flat seventh, is that it is the third of the G chord. As we’ve said above, the Mixolydian mode in the key of D uses all of the notes normal to the key of G, so one could say that D Mixolydian is actually G major but with a different sense of tonal ‘center.’
We’ve heard this mode in many popular songs like “Ramblin' Man" by The Allman Brothers, “Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the long outro to the Beatles song, “Hey Jude.” Our friend Jim Rooney created the wonderful Mixolydian melody for the traditional English ballad “One Morning In May.”
If we think of other songs that use this dissonance, it usually occurs with the fourth scale degree resolving back down to the third, or the 4-3 suspension. In a way, this is what we have if we think of D Mixolydian as the same notes as G major. With a melody that seems to be in D, we have that same 4-3 dissonance/resolution in the 7-6 relationship of the Mixolydian scale.
We recorded the song in D, but you could sing it in any key, you would just have to be aware that the notes need to conform to the scheme of whole steps and half steps that comprise the Mixolydian mode for that key. The first tetrachord is whole-step, whole-step, half-step, and then the whole-step before the next tetrachord. But then the sequence is whole-step, half-step, whole-step.
There’s a lot more to be said about modes and dissonances. If you’re curious you can find some of that in my book Songwriting and the Creative Process.
The metrical scheme of the poem is loosely iambic with four feet to a line, or tetrameter. But Pete has given the lines a polyrhythmic overlay of one-e-an-a two-e-an-a that allows for a more dramatic phrasing when sung. The last two lines of the chorus weren’t in the original poem, even though the title was “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” Pete added the two lines and it gave a welcome sense of repetition to the shorter poem.
Here’s an (audio only) video of Pete and Karen Sutherland playing and singing "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”:
Pete and Karen Sutherland performing "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death"
And here’s a video of "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” using the track that Pete produced for us on our CD The Light of the Day, available from our online store here. Pete’s playing the fiddle part, Cindy’s playing the concertina and I’m playing guitar.
Steve & Cindy with Pete on fiddle perform Pete's song
Audio from Compass Rose Music CD The Light of the Day
Here are the lyrics:
When the crops were scanty and bread was dear,
The good squire's fertile and sheltered farm
In his valley nestled secure from harm
And the summer winds blew with an icy breath
In 1800 and Froze to Death.
And the buyers gathered with eager greed
To speculate on the poor man's need.
But the good squire said, "It is all in vain.
No one with money can buy my grain.
But they who are hungry may come and take
Their ample store for the giver's sake."
That good old man to his rest is gone
But his fame still lingers in the golden corn.
For every year in its ripening grain
That grand old story is told again,
How the summer winds blew with an icy breath
In 1800 and Froze to Death.
© 1991, Epact Music, BMI
So what happened?
In April of 1815, the Tambora volcano, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, violently erupted. This eruption was more powerful than the eruptions of Krakatoa, Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Mauna Loa. It was the world's largest eruption since the Hatepe eruption in AD 180.
When Tambora blew its top, it sent out enough ash, stone, and pumice to cover a 200 miles square area at a depth of nearly twelve feet. The eruption was so strong that it sent sulfur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere, more than ten miles above the ground.
In the stratosphere, the sulfur dioxide reacted with the water vapors and produced a cloud of sulfate aerosols. The aerosols were so high up, well above the altitude of rain, that they remained suspended there. These particles reflected the sunlight away from the Earth’s surface and caused a global cooling effect.
The English governor of Indonesia, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, wrote of the eruption in his book, “The History of Java”:
“In April, 1815, one of the most frightful eruptions recorded in history occurred in the province of Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, about 200 miles from the eastern extremity of Java. In the April of the year preceding the volcano had been observed in a state of considerable activity, ashes having fallen upon the decks of vessels which sailed past the coast. The eruption of 1815 began on the 5th of April, but was most violent on the 11th and 12th, and did not entirely cease till July.
“The sound of the explosions was heard in Sumatra, at the distance of 970 geographical miles in a direct line; and at Ternate, in an opposite direction, at the distance of 720 miles. Out of a population of 12,000, in the province of Tomboro, only twenty-six individuals survived.
“Violent whirlwinds carried up men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within their influence, into the air; tore up the largest trees by the roots, and covered the whole sea with floating timber. Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro mountain, reached the sea.
“So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings in the town, uninhabitable. On the side of Java the ashes were carried to the distance of 300 miles, and 217 towards Celebes, in sufficient quantity to darken the air. The floating cinders to the westward of Sumatra formed, on the 12th of April, a mass two feet thick, and several miles in extent, through which ships with difficulty forced their way.”
There were four other large volcanic eruptions leading up to the Tambora eruption. In 1812, La Soufrière on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, 1812, Awu in the Sangihe Islands, Indonesia, 1813, Suwanosejima in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan and in 1814, Mayon in the Philippines. These eruptions had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust.
As is common after a massive volcanic eruption, temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight passed through the stratosphere. As a result, crops had been poor for several years. Also, the eruption occurred during the middle of a period of low solar activity called the Dalton Minimum.
Europe was still recovering from the Napoleonic Wars and many suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. Huge storms and abnormal rainfall flooded Europe's rivers and a typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819. It is estimated that 100,000 Irish perished during this period.
There are numerous accounts of farm fields completely dying due to frosts and freezes that occurred all throughout the summer. Often times, the ground was too frozen to plant the seeds. Fruit trees failed to produce fruit because the blossoms were frozen off. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had recently stepped down from being President, reported that all the crops grown at Monticello died.
The corn crop was significantly advanced in New England and the eruption caused the crop to fail. It was reported that in the summer of 1816 corn ripened so badly that no more than a quarter of it was usable for food. The crop failures in New England, Canada and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk and flour to rise sharply.
A Massachusetts historian wrote: It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality."
Volcanic ash in the atmosphere caused strange weather phenomena. Brown snow fell in Hungary, and in Italy's north-central region red snow fell throughout the year. High levels of tephra in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in paintings such as Turner’s Chichester Canal.
That summer, the poet Percy Byssche Shelley with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was soon to be his wife; and Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont went to Switzerland to stay with the poet Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva. Present also was Byron’s personal physician John William Polidori. The extreme cold and "incessant rainfall" kept them indoors.
One night in June, after the company had read aloud from the Tales of the Dead, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley worked on a tale that would later evolve into Frankenstein. Byron wrote a fragment of a story, which Polidori used later as the basis for his own tale, The Vampyre, which was to be the first vampire story published in English.
According to Goodreads.com, “Rather than use the crude, bestial vampire of folklore as a basis for his story, Polidori based his character on Byron. Polidori named the character "Lord Ruthven" as a joke. The name was originally used in Lady Caroline Lamb's novel Glenarvon, in which a thinly-disguised Byron figure was also named Lord Ruthven.
“Polidori's Lord Ruthven was not only the first vampire in English fiction, but was also the first fictional vampire in the form we recognize today – an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society.”
During their stay, Byron also wrote the poem, "Darkness":
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day”
The volcanic crater at Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia