"The Night the Stars Fell"

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 22, 2010 11:22 PM

As most of you know, I have been reading part of a collection of nineteenth century daily journals written by an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister as part of my grad school historical research class. [For a better introduction to the work, here is a podcast I recorded with some background.] When I get passed the fact that I'm drowning under the work and the volume of work that still remains pushes me to the brink of my mental faculties, I have to admit that there is a lot in these journals that really interests me. The little glimpses into the life of a rural family and neighborhood in mid- to late- nineteenth century Mississippi can shed a lot of light on the history of our present customs, problems, and ideas, as well as show what we have lost, for better or worse. Subtle references to the present that only a historian can really grasp (e.g. referring to William Jennings Bryan, a very important figure in late and early nineteenth century political history, only as "Bryan," etc.), as well as referring to the writer's recent, local past (which in turn is the distant, obscure past to the modern reader).

One such reference occurred a journal from 1899 that I've been writing on. When eulogizing a man who died, Sam Agnew (the minister) referred to the fact that "Jim" was born "9 years before the Stars fell, which makes his birth year 1824." When I first read it without fully understanding it, I thought it was a Civil War reference. Of course, the Civil War began in 1861, but the connotation with "Stars," especially in that capitalized form, is political. When I came across it again, I decided to simply google the phrase and see what came up. What I found really caught me by surprise.

"The Night the Stars Fell" is a reference to the Leonid Meteor Shower that occurred in 1833. The shower was apparently so intense and awe-inspiring that it became a cultural phenomenon as well. The song "Stars Fell on Alabama," though written in 1934, is actually about the meteor shower. If it's important enough use as a landmark for births and deaths, it is fair to say that the event was a truly spectacular one and very important to nineteenth century Americans.

Here's a link to the song as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on iTunes, as well as a link to a more complete story about the details of the shower itself.  The picture below comes from the description of the event.

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