Tragedy and despair may appear strange bed-fellows for music but history has shown us that such songs and stories can live on in the folk memory. Modern-day entertainment has generally put the kibosh on such oral circulation – but not entirely. The collapse of the Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania in May 2006 was like no other mining disaster in Australia’s history. To use the description ‘media circus’ would be an understatement. Of the seventeen people who were in the mine at the time, fourteen escaped immediately following the collapse, one was killed and the remaining two were found alive using a remote-controlled device. These two miners were rescued on 9 May 2006, two weeks after being trapped nearly a kilometre below the surface. As a folklorist I was interested to track how this disaster would see the creation of folklore. The likelihood of songs being written were slim, yet there was at least one – written by Dave Grohl and performed by the Foo Fighters.

There was also a musical based on the event however, because of the outcry, it was shelved. You can watch a clip on the reaction the idea caused.

What Beaconsfield did create was humour. There is no doubt that humour is a valuable mechanism to release distress over such disasters. It is, of course, a relatively new form of folklore. It took about two weeks after the Beaconsfield collapse for the jokes to flow. It is almost akin to the old bush pioneers who routinely got wiped out by the cycle of floods, bushfires and droughts and their only response was to shrug their shoulders, mutter, ‘Well, you might as well laugh’, and continue on. The almost 24 hour media coverage of modern disasters adds to the shock and community ownership. After an unwritten time the community realises it has to move forward. Humour helps us move forward.

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Warren Fahey is a Sydney-based Cultural Historian, author and performer. His Australian Folklore Unit site offers resources on Australian history, music and folklore.