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Singing the Alarm

(Rebel Records - Rebel Records)

Listen here you men, one thing I'd like to say --

Ain't no womens out here, they all got washed away.

Lord, Lord, Mississippi shaking, Louisiana sinking,

The whole town's a-ranking [stinking], Robert Hicks is singing.

It's one of the set's most powerful performances, albeit with a major shortcoming: The Georgia musician, who also recorded as Barbecue Bob, never visited the blighted region, making him a sort of Jayson Blair of the blues.

"People Take Warning!" includes seven songs about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, the event that looms over the entire era as the disaster of all disasters. "I couldn't tell you how many people died in the Oklahoma City bombing," King admits. "Recent events like that have no traction for me, they're not etched in my memory. But the fact that there were more than 1,500 people who died on the Titanic, that's been burned in my mind since I was a kid."

The book encasing the CDs became for King a way to send a rather morbid valentine to an era that his father re-created in the record room and that haunted his youth, the packaging itself a painstaking and heartfelt homage to the highly stylized manner in which early 20th-century Americans honored death and family: "I wanted the look of a Victorian-era scrapbook, like the ones every self-respecting family had back then, that showed the generations that have passed away."

One of the more striking examples is a portrait of the Lawson family. It was taken by the town photographer of Lawsonville, N.C., two weeks before Charlie Lawson, a local farmer, killed his wife and eight children, then carefully closed their eyes and arranged their bodies with a stone under each head, before shooting himself. On the same page is a photo of the coffins lined up at the grave site, where a local string band, the Carolina Buddies, would later play their ballad "Murder of the Lawson Family," a hit for Columbia Records released not long after the Christmas Day 1929 slayings.

To illustrate a fire that swept Baltimore in 1904, King dug into his own archives for a souvenir he bought at a flea market in Hillsville, Va. It's a three-fold deluxe period postcard of Charm City in smoldering ruins. The wide-angle scene of near-total destruction helps shed light on the disaster, stoked by gale winds blowing off the harbor, as described by Charlie Poole's 1929 "Baltimore Fire."

Even if most of the music on "People Take Warning!" was recorded after the Victorian era had ostensibly ended, the songs and performers were firmly in the grip of those old-fashioned mores, including the notion of God's implacable will imparted on victims. The disasters and killings are not bemoaned as accidents but accepted as the vagaries of Fate or the unerring judgment of a vengeful Creator. The set's title is echoed in several records, most vividly in Fiddlin' John Carson's "Storm That Struck Miami," about a hurricane that pummeled the Florida coast in 1926, killing more than 1,000 and leaving 38,000 homeless:

People all take warning, and don't forget to pray,

For you, too, may meet your Maker before the break of day.

For a compilation that dwells on death, it's remarkable how many of these events and characters live on today in American song. There are updated takes, including the Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" and Led Zeppelin's overhaul of Memphis Minnie's 1929 "When the Levee Breaks," and preserved-in-amber renditions such as Ralph Stanley's "Pretty Polly," which the 80-year-old icon still performs today little changed from the centuries-old ballad he heard as a boy in the Appalachian mountains.

Reissues such as "People Take Warning!" play a key role in keeping the songs and stories from dying out. As Waits puts it, "While the song plays we believe these dry bones can live."

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