At 11:57:30 PM on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam surrendered to an angry wall of water that swept up and killed over 500 people, as it sought its path to the ocean. The chief engineer of the dam-building project, William Mulholland, helplessly observed the damage upstream from high ground the morning after the disaster. Mulholland is the man Frank Black (a.k.a. Black Francis) refers to in the first verse:
There was a well known water master man
He was the king
He could do anything
The St. Francis Dam disaster man
Thought she was all right
Mulholland and assistant survey the damage.
Hollywood cashes in.
Black personifies the great wave as a powerful enslaved woman, seeking freedom and bent on destruction:
Until around midnight
Because that water seeks her own
She had a desire to flow
She was looking for somewhere to go
She was a slave to the great metropolis
She was feeling choked
She pushed the wall 'til it broke
St. Francis Dam Disaster seems to be a parable on the hazards of containment versus will, a warning that no matter how grand our structures, control is no more than a dangerous illusion.
Frank Black - St. Francis Dam Disaster (mp3)
From Dog in the Sand, which was recorded live to two-track, with no edits, in Los Angeles, CA (2000).