|Sunset portion of collage taken by Storm'n Norm'n|
on November 12, 2009 at 5:40 AM, updated September 10, 2013 at 8:14 AM
The song "Stars Fell on Alabama" has deep roots in astronomy as well as state history.
The 1833 storm was an unusually active display of Leonid meteors, specks of debris from the comet Tempel-Tuttle, often as small as grains of sand, that briefly streak across the sky as they burn up in the atmosphere.
"The sky was literally filled with fireworks, and people thought it was the end of the world. That was the night stars fell on Alabama and most of North America," said Bill Cooke, an astronomer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville. "The only people who weren't scared were the American Indians. They interpreted meteors as a sign of good luck."
The next best chance for Alabamians to see Leonid meteors will come before dawn Tuesday, though Cooke said the display isn't forecast to be nearly as impressive as it was 176 years ago.
The 1833 event terrified people across America, says an article in "The Alabama Guide," published this year by the state Department of Archives and History.
The Huntsville Democrat newspaper, as cited in the guide, reported on "this most awful and sublime appearance" and wrote, "For several hours, thousands and even millions of these meteors appeared in every direction to be in constant motion."
Some people believed Judgment Day was at hand, said an article that ran in Alabama Heritage magazine in 2000. The article quoted a newspaper from a town in Georgia that said many profane people "were frightened to their knees," that dust-covered Bibles were opened and that dice and cards were thrown to the flames.
About a century later, the event inspired the title of "Stars Fell on Alabama," a book by New York native Carl Carmer. He taught English at the University of Alabama in the 1920s and wrote a book of essays, many of them relating stories people told him as he traveled the state.
The book, published in 1934, said some black women told Carmer their fathers knew slaves whose memories were seared by the "awful event."
"Many an Alabamian to this day reckons dates from 'the year the stars fell,'" Carmer wrote.
Soon after the book came out, Mitchell Parish wrote the words and Frank Perkins the music of the song "Stars Fell on Alabama," a hit after the Guy Lombardo Orchestra recorded it the same year.
The song tells of "a situation so heavenly," with a couple kissing in a field of white, and says several times that "stars fell on Alabama last night."
Billie Holiday, Jack Teagarden and Ella Fitzgerald recorded the song. So did Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr., Jimmy Buffett and many others.
John C. Hall, director of the Black Belt Museum at the University of West Alabama, thinks the phrase "Stars Fell on Alabama" resonates today because of the song, not the book or the meteor storm.
"The song was so popular, and was a standard from every Alabama band performance from 1934 (on), that I think that is what has kept the phrase before the public," said Hall, who wrote the Alabama Heritage article.
The Leonid meteors, so called because they appear to fall from a point in the eastern sky near the constellation Leo, zoom through space at about 156,000 mph, Cooke said. They tend to burn up roughly 60 miles from the ground.
This year, Earth is forecast to plow through debris ejected by comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1466 and 1533, said Bill Keel, an astronomer at the University of Alabama. The comet orbits the sun about every 33 years.
Cooke said Earth is expected to be close to the middle of the debris streams about 3:45 p.m. on, daytime in Alabama.
He said the best viewing here, clouds permitting, will be before dawn Tuesday, when people can expect to see about 25 meteors per hour. Viewing also should be worthwhile late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, Cooke said.
Anyone hoping to see Leonid meteors should find a dark, open place far from city lights, lie on the ground and look straight up to see as much of the sky as possible, Cooke and Keel said.
"The key is to watch," Cooke said. "They'll appear to come from the constellation Leo, in the east, but they can appear anywhere in the sky."