The Eye of the Hurricane Words & Music by Rex Benson & Steve Gillettea
The Great Storm of Galveston on September 8th, 1900, was the worst natural disaster ever to strike the North American continent. It is believed to have originated from a tropical wave which moved off the west coast of Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean. An area of high pressure over the Florida Keys moved the system northwestward into the Gulf of Mexico, where conditions such as warm sea surface temperatures allowed the storm to intensify into a hurricane.
The hurricane continued to strengthen until it reached its peak intensity with estimated sustained wind speeds of 145 mph. The storm made landfall just west of Houston, and the island of Galveston was engulfed in a storm surge which ultimately caused great loss of life, with a death toll estimated at 8,000 people.
On the Labor Day weekend of 1935 the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record struck the Florida Keys with winds of 185 mph. The hurricane passed near Long Key on the evening of Monday, September 2. The region was swept by a massive storm surge as the eye passed over the area. The waters quickly receded after carving new channels connecting the bay with the ocean. Gale-force winds and high seas persisted into Tuesday the 3rd, preventing rescue efforts.
The hurricane caused catastrophic damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet swept over the low-lying islands. The hurricane's strong winds and the surge destroyed nearly all the structures between Tavernier and Marathon. The town of Islamorada was obliterated. Portions of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway were severely damaged or destroyed. In addition, many veterans died in work camps created for the construction of the Overseas Highway.
On Upper Matecumbe Key, an eleven-car evacuation train encountered a powerful storm surge topped by cresting waves. All eleven cars were swept from the tracks, leaving only the locomotive and tender upright and still on the rails. The hurricane left a path of near-total destruction in the Upper Keys, centered on what is today the village of Islamorada. The eye of the storm passed a few miles to the southwest creating a calm of about 40 minutes duration over Lower Matecumbe.
The eye is a region of mostly calm weather at the center of a tropical cyclone. The eye of a storm is a roughly circular area, typically twenty to forty miles in diameter. It is surrounded by the eye wall, a ring of towering thunderstorms where the most severe weather and highest winds occur.
This idea of a calm center in the midst of the stress of day-to-day life was attractive to us as a premise for a song. I’m sure there are many musical approaches that would work with this idea, but since Rex and I were very much focused on writing for the Nashville marketplace, we chose the musical form you hear below.
Also, the person that we hear from in the lines of the song was chosen to fit the artists currently making records in that marketplace. The lines were shaped by the kinds of things that a strong, alpha-male, country vocalist might say; brave, but still vulnerable and needing the support of his woman to face the world. That may be an oversimplified and formulaic vision, but it’s a way in to the topic of this article.
Writing for a market means acclimating, acculturating to the values and attitudes which resonate with the listeners of that music. It would be different if the market were Broadway, or Detroit, or London, or Hollywood, or New Orleans, and it might be instructive to explore what the differences might be. Of course, Rex and I were not sociologists, but struggling songwriters hoping to strike platinum.
The eye of that hurricane was a pretty inviting place. It was fun to play with the difference in intensity of the two conditions, calm, peace, respite, reassurance, contrasted with rage, storm, lightning, wind, waves, and fearful darkness. In workshop sessions we talk about sitting down with the pen and paper and listing all those terms on both sides of the question, and out of that exercise, it is hoped that language will emerge which has some power in the song. ‘Rain’ is a good rhyme for hurricane, and a good pairing with ‘wind and rain.’ So that one stuck. ‘Tempest’ and ‘tossed,’ ‘drenched’ and ‘raging’ all made the list. ‘Calm’ says a lot and sings well, and lends itself to a cogent last line of the chorus, ‘It’s an angry sky, but it’s calm in the eye of the hurricane.’
Central to this work is the choice of making the song a love song. Still, there was the wish to have drama and intensity lending urgency to the love theme. In retrospect, all these years later, and far from the heat of the Nashville lottery, it might seem a little silly. Or, at least pretentious. For my part, I freely admit that some of our efforts to have an effect, might have landed a little wide of the mark. There’s always another song on the way.
But this one has something. I think the musical elements are satisfying. The use of the E minor chord in the key of G keeps the question of key center open. The B seventh chord, the dominant seventh chord for the key of E minor also contributes to that uncertainty. It creates a dramatic point at the end of the verse that makes the affirmation of the G chord at the beginning of the chorus that much more welcome. We’ve discussed the use of borrowed dominant chords in previous articles, it’s something I’ve relied on a lot.
There’s a difference in the rhythmic approach for the verse and for the chorus. This creates a contrast between a relatively moderate, almost half-time phrasing of the verse describing the dark weather, with the more intense and elevated vocal striving of the chorus which takes up the positive aspects of the calm.
This might seem counter-intuitive, and that idea alone is worthy of much analysis. It might be that in any song there is a balance, a proportionality of light and dark, smooth and rough, sigh and cry, striving and rest, and the hope of a sense of resolution. We talk a lot about synesthetics, the mixture of sensual qualities of touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, and how they might combine, or even conflict, to create an effect. With weather and danger and the sea, lightning, rain and darkness, there is much to work with.
Supported by the sensual content there is also a hint that love, the act of love, is something that has the magical power of removing pain and anxiety. A power of release and reassurance, a new lease on the world. This is something that is sung about in all forms of music, but there are some questions about just how pointedly this release and comfort can be described. Here, we’ve kept it mostly in the metaphorical realm. There are conventions of politeness that have moved on quite a bit from the prudishness of the fifties country songs, but still the genre has its own standards, and it’s good to be attuned to them.
For our recording of the song which is on my CD Texas & Tennessee, we were fortunate to have the help of Pete Wasner on piano, Larry Atamaniuk on drums, Mark Schatz on base and my brother, Jeff Gillette on lead guitar.
Here’s my video of the song:
"The Eye of the Hurricane" from Texas & Tennessee.
Video by Steve
Bob Toomey has put together a video using Thomas Edison’s film of the aftermath of the Galveston storm, and using Tom Rush’s recording of “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm.” Bruce Langhorne and Bill Lee accompany Tom on the recording. In the description of his video, Toomey writes: “On September 24, 1900, Thomas A. Edison sent a film crew to Galveston to record the aftermath of the storm, and part of that film is what you're seeing here. The song, “Wasn't that a Mighty Storm,” was written sometime later. The lyrics mention a seawall, but Galveston didn't build a seawall until after the 1900 hurricane, and whoever wrote the song didn't know that. It was first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 at Darrington State Farm, a prison near Sandy point, Texas, sung by “Sin-Killer” Griffin who claimed authorship. A new, more powerful arrangement was created in the 1960s by Eric Von Schmidt, who gave the song to Tom Rush.” You can watch the video at YouTube here.
Other folk music examples of storm songs include Bob Franke’s “Alleluia, the Great Storm is Over”
I’ve also written another song called “Hurricane” which is on our Being There CD. This one is definitely in the folk song category and is about the disaster that struck the Florida Keys in September of 1935.
“Run Come See, Jerusalem” is a song that Cindy and I recorded with our friends Michael Smith and Anne Hills on our Fourtold CD. It was originally written by Blake Alphonso Higgs (Blind Blake) and describes a hurricane in the Bahamas in 1929.
“The Eye of the Hurricane” — Words & Music by Rex Benson & Steve Gillette
But when those
You take me in out of the madness.
And time for the moment stands still.
You give my life a sense of direction,
And I pray that you always will.
'Cause when the powers that be take their toll on me,
And my balance is starting to sway.
You take my hand, and my troubles are swept away.
But in the eye of the hurricane, there's a calm and quiet place.
The shelter of your arms is my refuge,
When the world is so hard to face.
Outside, the night is raging, there's a wall of wind and rain.
It's an angry sky, but it's calm in the eye of the hurricane.
© 1998, Foreshadow Songs / Rex Benson Music, BMI