Galloping Gertie: Telling the story of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Galloping Gertie

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge circa 1940

The castles of sound that we musicians build always fade away at the end of the concert, but at least we don’t have to worry about them crashing down in the wind. The thousands of tons of twisting and bucking metal of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in its death throes was unforgettable the first time I saw the video of it. I wrote a piece about Galloping Gertie for AnyWhen’s first album but recently I heard another telling, by Roman Mars on his wonderful podcast 99% Invisible, and I was inspired to not only revisit my piece, but to dig deeper into this story, and the art of storytelling itself.

The AnyWhen Ensemble and I will be going to Oakland to tell this story to the students of the Head-Royce School in Oakland, CA on November 8th, 2013, just one day after the 73rd anniversary of the bridge’s collapse. I’ll start off by showing them this newsreel from 1940, telling them only the date and location of this video.

As the bridge begins its bucking motion, and as it gets more and more intense, the ensemble will play wild, chaotic sounds — meant to directly mimic the sounds we might have heard if we had been there. Then, I’ll tell them a bit about the story of the bridge — how the bridge was designed by Clark Eldridge; then revised by Leon Moisseiff, one of the designers of the Golden Gate Bridge, in favor of a cheaper design; how the bridge surface would jump in winds as light as four miles per hour even before it was finished; and how, after just five months in operation, it collapsed, destroyed beyond repair.

How should we tell the story of Galloping Gertie?

We’re going to talk not just about the story, but also the act of storytelling. The first responsibility of the storyteller is to pick a path through an unintelligible amount of data. You must choose the best possible resources, and that’s why I’ll show them the video. But, I’ll be sure to tell them that this source can’t tell us everything.

One thing it doesn’t tell us is that there were no human deaths from the bridge collapse, but one dog named Tubby did perish in the water. The owner of the dog and the car was forced to abandon the car with Tubby inside. The dog was too scared to leave the car, and even bit another man who risked his life to try to rescue him. So, beyond the financial cost of the bridge’s failure, there is also poor Tubby, whose body was never recovered.

Sure, Tubby’s story is heartbreaking. But, isn’t it just a distraction? Wouldn’t it be more useful to talk about why the bridge collapsed? The economic costs of replacing it? Who is to blame? The reason I chose to include Tubby’s story here, over many other important facts, is that it brings all the others into perspective — anyone of us could have fell into the water, but it was an innocent dog that paid the ultimate price. It was a mix of bad decisions and plain old ignorance that led to the bridge’s collapse and Tubby’s death. The story is too complex to fully unwind it here, but now that we know about Tubby, we might care to learn enough about the bridge to answer all those other questions.

How does music tell a story?

My favorite storytellers connect disparate ideas, dole the story out at just the right speed, or subtly shift the focus of the storytelling to expose new insight. Like an architect hanging his or her bridge on an inverted arch of wire, a great storyteller does his or her work on top of, around and through the structure of the story itself. When we add music to the telling of a story, we reframe the story in a few important ways.

One of our most important tools is if we choose to echo the content of the story directly, like when we made “breaking bridge” sounds at the beginning of the presentation, or if we work against the story by taking the music in unexpected directions. When I wrote my “Galloping Gertie” piece in 2008 I wanted to capture not just the wild spirit of the bridge, but also the love for futurism that is a big part of the spirit of the 40’s. When I look back at the optimism for the future that we had when Gertie was built, a little more than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, I’m stuck by how we feel the in the future everything will “just work.” (Today’s familiar Apple products slogan echoes this sentiment.) But, Gertie’s collapse was a painful lesson that even in this brave future, we’ll still suffer painful tragedies.

My telling of Galloping Gertie’s story blends the chaos of the breaking bridge, but also the resilient trust in the promise of a better future for the people that built it. I never meant to present the story literally in the music, so its my goal that the students will have a better grasp both of this story and storytelling in general. I’m hoping they’ll take these lessons from it, as well as others I haven’t thought of. This will be the first presentation of its kind for me and the group, and I can’t wait to do it! You can hear my “Galloping Gertie” here.

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