Singing the Alarm
Thursday, December 6, 2007
When Chris King was growing up, he often gave tours of his father's record room, a mini-museum crammed with music boxes and Victrolas that Les King collected as a traveling music teacher in the Allegheny Highlands around Bath County, Va. What most fascinated the youngster wasn't the quaint, nostalgic bric-a-brac of a bygone era, but the frighteningly real and unsettling music that crackled from the grooves of the old shellac records, songs of death and destruction that chronicled events from nearly a century before.
Rendered in unflinching detail by grim-voiced singers from the '20s and '30s, there were train wrecks and coal mine explosions and schoolhouse fires with screaming children trapped inside. Cars and trucks and buses careering off mountain roads. Farmers killing their families and themselves. Young men offing their pregnant girlfriends. Cyclones, earthquakes and floods; droughts, dust bowls and plagues of boll weevils wiping out crops.
A lot of this mayhem had occurred not in some far-off place but right in King's back yard. The first record his father gave him, the Skillet Lickers' "Wreck of the Old Southern 97," described a derailment that occurred down the road in Danville, when a mail train jumped the track into a ravine, killing nine on board including the engineer: "He was found in the wreck with his hand upon the throttle and scalded to death by the steam." Blind Alfred Reed's "Wreck of the Virginian" detailed another fiery train accident just a few miles across the state line in West Virginia, not far from the coal mine disaster commemorated in Reed's "Explosion in the Fairmount Mine," the deadliest in U.S. history, killing 362 men and boys. Add some ballads brimming with bloody murders that happened a few mountain ranges over and it's enough to make quite an impression on a boy.
"When you're exposed to so much of this stuff so young, you start to wonder, 'Was this really all that ever happened around here before I was born?' " says King, 35, a producer and audio restorer who now lives in the small town of Faber an hour from his childhood home. "People getting murdered, drowned, burned, swept up in hurricanes and scalded to death in train wrecks? How did my parents survive all this? It gives you a very macabre outlook on life."
That macabre vision has found full flower in a new three-CD set compiled by King, "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938," issued by Tompkins Square Records (and available at tompkinssquare.com). Featuring 70 tracks, most from King's own record collection, presented in a lavishly illustrated hard-bound book, the set offers an aural and pictorial portrait of America before and during the Depression.
"If you mention murder ballads or disaster songs, most people think of some sort of folk-revival group like the Kingston Trio singing 'Tom Dooley,' clean-cut guys with big grins in matching green-striped shirts," he says. "That's not what it's really all about. This is dark stuff, a crucial part of American history, and I wanted to give it the presentation it deserved."
Toward that end King assembled lyric fragments, postcards and letters, news clippings, panoramic vistas of charred cityscapes and sprawling wreckage sites; photos of corpses and coffins scanned from survivors' scrapbooks; odd bits of ephemera such as a copy of the air-brake certificate of doomed locomotive engineer Casey Jones -- and, of course, an array of vintage recordings, from hillbilly and blues to pop songs. There's a Cajun murder ballad and a Hebrew prayer sung for the dead of the Titanic.
The result is a disturbing cultural artifact in the tradition of the tabloid photographer Weegee's crime scene chronicles and "Wisconsin Death Trip," Michael Lesy's 1973 compendium of grisly photos and news clippings of a murder-and-suicide epidemic that struck around the turn of the century in Black River Falls, Wis. Only this time the can't-look-away images come with a foreword by singer Tom Waits and a soundtrack with songs later covered by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Clash and the White Stripes.
Waits says he was sold on the project by the bulk and quality of the material King managed to salvage, ranking it with the "archaeological digs" of legendary folklorist and compiler Alan Lomax: "Chris has found buried treasures and gathered enough disaster songs here to sink a battleship."
In its aim and scope, and most of all in its obsessive focus on primal forces beyond our control, "People Take Warning!" is gunning for an audience far beyond the old-time music crowd. King wants to make converts from his own generation and to make a case that death is not the sole dominion of goth rockers, death-metal heads and graphic-novel enthusiasts. The hipsters at Pitchfork.com have been won over, and the New Yorker has given the collection a spot on its list of 2007's best box sets.
"The whole idea of what Chris has done is really compelling," says Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records, a reissue label based in North Carolina. "Let's face it: People just love a tale of woe, and here's an entire project devoted to it."
Wyatt's 2005 compilation "Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937" was championed in rock and hip-hop periodicals alike. The raw, death-rattle sounds of "People Take Warning!" may have similar appeal to those raised on disaster-relief celebrity singalongs that ignore the nasty details of the disasters themselves.