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Singing the Alarm
"This compilation harkens back to an era when, instead of cable TV, where it's just mindless babbling about news events, there were these beautifully crafted three-minute nuggets that told a story and did it quite brilliantly," Wyatt adds. "Some have pointed out that these records were done very quickly and crudely, but to my ear, there's a lot of passion and artistry in these songs."
Topical songs about tragic events were part of a record-industry trend that took off commercially in 1925 with crooner Vernon Dalhart's "Death of Floyd Collins," about a man trapped in a Kentucky cave. It was a million seller and opened the floodgates for songs ripped from the headlines.
The most lucrative market for these lurid "emotional obits," as Waits calls them, were for rural Southerners hungry for every scrap of news of local disasters. The trend reached its peak just as the Depression hit, adding to the human-misery toll and providing ever more fodder for the phonograph makers and sheet music publishers.
The 78-rpm record, which allowed for only a few minutes per side, forced songwriters and performers to craft concise, journalistic storylines. Before the advent of round-the-clock media saturation, these records brought the news of "true happenings" with an unrivaled, you-are-there immediacy and drama. Out of the centuries-old tradition of British broadsides, the rambling ballad form was now boiled down into a distinctly American pulp: brief, violent and moralistic to the core.
"Ryecove Cyclone," from 1932, is typical in its blend of blunt reportage and sentimentality. The song commemorates a cyclone that pulverized a rural schoolhouse in southwest Virginia, killing two dozen children. The singers tell the story "in sadness and tear-dimmed eyes" even as they describe kinfolk scouring the rubble for loved ones:
There were mothers so dear and fathers the same
That came to this horrible scene
Searching and crying, each found their own child
Lying on a pillow of stone.
No locale was too obscure or remote to get its own song. "A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds," Waits writes in his foreword. "Songs that are roadside graves dug quickly with crosses made from kindling while the grief was still fresh."
The need for communal catharsis was exploited to the hilt by record companies. After a fire set by inmates killed 322 prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary in 1930, four versions of "Ohio Prison Fire" were released within a month of the event. Bob Miller's version, recorded three days after the blaze, features a weeping violin and sobbing mother who identifies the burned body of her son.
The rage for disaster songs gave free license to performers who needed only a guitar and some gumption to become self-appointed correspondents. The great Mississippi flood of 1927, which rivaled Hurricane Katrina in its destructive force, unleashed a tidal wave of topical songs, like that of bluesman Robert Hicks, who gave listeners a riveting account in "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues." Slogging through the devastation, "mud all in my shoes," Hicks grieves the loss of his house and his gal. Then he offers a breaking-news alert capped by a shout-out to himself lest anyone doubt who's on the scene: