FIVE YEARS AGO seismic warnings rumbled for two full months prior to Mount St. Helens finally blowing its top on May 18, 1980. Northwest songwriters presumably took this advance notice of impending calamity as their cue because almost before the ash settled, volcano-themed records were airing on regional radio stations and appearing in local retail racks. The Eruption of the mountain inspired the production of a greater number of novelty records than any local event since Seattle’s 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair.

The subject matter of all those songs varied quite a bit. Some focused on the natural phenomenon of the volcano itself, while others were touching tributes to that instant folk legend who presumably died in his mountain cabin, Harry Truman (“Ode to Harry Truman – Man of Mt. St. Helens” by Michael David, “Harry Truman – Your Spirit Lives on” by R. W. Stone, “Mountain Man” by Cyril Kittleson, “Give ’em Hell, Harry” by Dan Guyll, and “Ode To Harry Truman” by Steve Cooper).

So, upon this fifth anniversary of what was the first volcanic eruption within the continental U.S. in 140 years, we gaze back this month to some of these discs and their creators.
  • “The Mountain (Theme of Keeper of the Flame), by Joe Ericksen & the Guys. This was a solid hard-rockin’ effort (imagine Heart’s “Barracuda” cross-pollinated with the old “Secret Agent Man” theme) that posed the critically urgent question of the day: “Will the mountain turn into a fountain?”
  • “We Want Lava,” by the Beaver Trail Boys. Taking a more light-hearted approach to the same crisis, these guys are a laff riot. This fun song chides our volcano’s lack of visible molten lava, rendered in a comedic Western Swing style a la Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks.
  • “Ashfall,” The Pete Leinonen Quintet. This song was composed for their performance at the 1980 Bumbershoot Festival. It is an instrumental interpretation of the natural event done by a group that boasted some of the area’s best known jazzers, including bassist Leinonen, who has since become a business rep for Seattle’s Musicians’ Union AFM-76.
  • “Ode To Mt. St. Helens,” Stuff & Co. One of the most subtly bizarre efforts must have ben this mistitled plea to that crusty 84-year-old Harry Truman, asking that he abandon his cabin at Spirit Lake adjacent to the mountain. Well, we may never know exactly what became of ol’ harry, but these lyrics!!! Why attempt to immortalize the rude scientific fact that the environs surrounding the blast zone was “stinkin’ and it smelled like rotten eggs”?
  • “Volcano Rag,” by Joe D. Lake. A kind of bluegrass breakdown set to confessional lyrics that perhaps reflect the sentiments of more than one of these artists: “I thought that if I write this, that old Johnny just might hear, and we might get a spot on the Tonight Show.”
  • “St. Helens Blew Blues,” by Hot Rocks. These guys, hailing from Sumner, Washington, were possibly the only band that saw fit to include an absolutely screaming electric guitar solo at their song’s midpoint. Thanks, guys!
  • “Helen, Don’t Send Your Ash To Town,” by Willy & the Woodchucks. And now, here’s one for the kiddies: the Northwest’s answer to Alvin & the Chipmunks, doing a spoof of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s 1969 smash hit, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
  • “Mount St. Helens,” by Gil Rivet. “Issued on an obscure Bellevue-based label, this disc features a tender ballad by a gruff-voiced gentleman who sounds as if he could possibly have been Ivar Haglund’s vocal coach. Pretty damn odd stuff…
  • “Eruption 1980,” by Buddy Foley. Local multi-media madman Foley yelps this song with the backing support of a sound effects department that is unrivaled in this realm. The record’s flipside, “The Mt. St. Helens Story – A Mini Documentary,” is a spoken word recitation of the chronological developments of the disaster.
  • “Mount St. Helens Blues,” by Blue Lights. This Seattle combo performs an authentic roots-style 12-bar blues to lament the occasion. Hot harmonica, perfect piano fills, and an outstanding vocal job make this one a choice pick.
  • “Fire Mountain,” by the Rolling Eruption Review. This Winlock, Washington-based group – which features longtime Northwest old-time fiddling champion Vivian Williams, crafted one of the finer songs. A rare example here of understated lyrics and an ultra-clean production courtesy of Bear Creek Studios out in Woodinville. Also, of note is the fact that this is undoubtedly the only record ever issued replete with a ziplock plastic baggie full of volcanic ash.

[Note: This is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared in the “Northwest Music Archives” column of Seattle’s The Rocket magazine back in May, 1985.]

Text copyright © 1985, 2014 by Peter Blecha.