Singing the Alarm
Historic Tunes In the Key Of Misery

By Eddie Dean
Special to The Washington Post
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.

"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:

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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