People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938
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A stunning, landmark 3CD Boxed Set featuring 70 beautifully remastered recordings by some of the cornerstones of American vernacular recording + a 48 page book with eye-popping historic images never before reproduced. These songs of death, destruction and disaster, recorded by black and white performers from the dawn of American roots recording, are rare audio messages in a bottle. Produced and annotated by the Grammy winning team of Christopher King and Hank Sapoznik, booklet and packaged designed by Grammy award winning Susan Archie, with an introduction by Tom Waits
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Close your eyes and see the carnage reenacted. In Frank Hutchison's "Last Scene of the Titanic," see all the pretty ladies in their evening gowns and all of the tuxedoed gentlemen plummet over the deck of the great juggernaut as it collides with a massive iceberg, sending them wailing and flailing and thrashing in a demonic ballet into the icy Atlantic waters.
Open your ears and hear the plaintive cry of a child in the night, who wakes from a portentous dream in which his daddy is trapped in the interminable blackness of the coal mine (Blind Alfred Reed's "Explosion in the Fairmount Mine"), only to discover that dear daddy was indeed trapped in a mine explosion and is one of 200 unrecovered miners never to see the light of day again.
True-life scenes such as these are the subject of this massive 3-cd set, in which seemingly congenial-sounding folk and blues songs from the early twentieth century document disasters and real-life tragedies with a quiet intensity that disturbs the casual listener far more than any contemporary death metal band could. This is not Sturm und Drang, this is real pain and suffering devoid of fantasy or romanticism. These are songs for the legions of anonymous dead, musical coffin markers for the ones who were lost along the way.
Highlights range from the grim to the funny. In "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues," Robert "Barbecue Bob" Hicks complains that the murky brown flood waters have washed all the wimmenfolk away. The original version of "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie remains a haunting testament to the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire" is spectral in its account of hundreds consumed by the flames of a raging inferno. Then there's my personal favorite, Bob Miller's "Ohio Prison Fire", in which a distraught mother is asked to identify the charred remains of her late lamented son:
"I'll take my boy back now. The state's finished with him. The state's finished with all of these bodies. These poor, charred bodies!"
Disc Three switches the focus to murder ballads, showcasing songs of cold-blooded homicide that have influenced the work of such hardboiled musical greats as Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits, the latter providing the eloquent introduction to this set. Early versions of such blood-soaked ballads as "Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee" (the legend of Stack O'Lee or "Stagger Lee" exists in many forms) and "Darling Cora" (also known as "Darling Corey") stand alongside lesser-known death row oddities like "The Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, Pts. I & II," an ode to the murderer of the Lindbergh baby. True crime buffs may favor this disc as much as musicologists.
Special mention should be made to the impeccable sonic reproduction by Christopher King, who understands the mystical power inherent in the snap, crackle, and pop of old 78 records and faithfully reproduces the elusive sound of the victrola, cranked up and wailing away like a banshee in a tin can. The static of these old grooves perfectly encases the sadness of bygone eras like ancient beetles trapped in amber. Timeless and lifeless.
In today's post-9/11 world, the fear of arbitrary annihilation is almost taken for granted, yet this collection serves as a moving reminder that tragedies of every kind have always lived on in the music of American folk musicians, perhaps to serve as a talisman for future generations.
While the subject matter of the 1960's scene, naturally, tendered toward the overtly political around the issues of conventional war, nuclear disarmament, the fierce civil rights struggle in the American South that dominated all serious talk, social isolation, the rebellion against social conformity and the like historically the "singing" newspaper tradition was far from those "deep" concerns. The tendency was to be more personal either with songs of love. longing for love or of thwarted love or on a more mundane level disaster, manmade or natural, murders and other sensational crimes and whatever other local gossip could be turned into a ballad. But beyond that, as this compilation bears witness to every song seemingly had to provide a cautionary note.
Whether that note was to beware of getting to dependent on the emerging whirlwind of the newest technologies like the airplane or "unsinkable" ships, the mysteries of natural disasters like floods and fire or the hazards of pre-martial sex, being a vexing wife or coveting another man's the hand of "God" was written all over these things. People take warning was not only, or merely, a convenient metaphor to set the parameters of the song. That is what this three CD set is all about. So if you want to know about train wrecks ship wrecks, grizzly murders, the sorrows of the Great Depression and other obscure tales from the early 20th century then here is your chance to those subjects all in one place. And, incidentally, with a very nice and informative booklet of liner notes included, a grand piece of the puzzle of roots musical history and a small capsule of American everyday history.
Disc One: Man Versus Machine. If your thing is plane wrecks, train wrecks and ship sinkings then this disc will provide you will all you need to know about the hazards involved in the early stages of the modern transportation revolution, especially if you need to know about 57 versions of the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic. The best of that lot is the William and Versy Smith cover of "When That Great Ship Went Down" that I remember Cambridge resident folkie Eric Von Schmidt covering in the early 1960's. As for trains there is nothing better than the legendary country blues guitar impresario Furry Lewis, an artist whose work I have reviewed individually in this space, performing his two part of "Kassie Jones". The Skillet Lickers "Wreck of The Old 97" also deserves a listen. Finally Blind Alfred Reed, another artist covered individually here, has a couple of things, most prominently "The Wreck Of The Old Virginian" you must listen to.
Disc Two: Man Versus Nature. Although the marvels of modern technology have provided an increasing share of stories about the vagaries of the machine age old "Mother Nature", especially when observed up close as is the case down on the farm or out on the prairies still confounds us with her fury. We need only go back a few years to Hurricane Katrina to get very quickly reminded of our sometimes precarious position in the scheme of things. Floods and fires are center stage in this disc and no such compilation on this subject can be complete without the work of the "pre-blues" man Charlie Patton here on several tracks, most importantly those two parts of "High Water Everywhere". Uncle Dave Mason deserves a nod for "Tennessee Tornado" as does a young Son House for "Dry Spell Blues". Also of note is Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire" that Kate and Anna McGarrigle covered several years ago.
Disc Three: Man Versus Man (And Woman, Too). If you think man-made machine disasters or the handiwork of old "Mother Nature" have gotten a serious workout in the topical selections here, and in life, you ain't seen nothing yet until you get to this third disc about the short tempers, ill-advised motives and general ne'r -do- well happenings when men and women, their loves, hatred, sorrows and misadventures get a musical rendering. Watch out, murder and mayhem are the least of it. Someone is going to jail, or the gallows. No question about it. Tops here are the old saga about poor old Dupree and his life of crime trying to please his lady in "Dupree Blues". Needless to say the male of the species is not the only one subject to temptation and revenge as "Frankie" a much covered song with many variations is done here by the Dykes Magic City Trio. Of course the better known murder and outlaw tales of the ill-fated "Railroad Bill" and the likewise cursed "Tom Dooley" get a play here. Listen on.
Beautiful stuff which does deserve better packaging than this. Probably the best introduction to the music of that era for any current fan of the alt-country folks (Wilco, Billy Bragg, Handsome Family...) or dark, sinister balladeers (Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Dresden Dolls...).
Most recent customer reviews
Took me over 200 miles of happy interstate driving
(with nary a disaster)!