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V/A - People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938

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Artist: V/A

Album: People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Nov. 2, 2007

Historians have divided popular music in the United States during the first half of the 20th century into three very approximate categories: traditional and folk music, topical music (often written directly about current events, or at least inspired by current conditions), and lighter Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville fare. People Take Warning! collects a number of topical recordings, the often neglected middle category of the three. “Topical songs” frequently fail to engage modern listeners because of their highly contextualized subject matter, referring to labor struggles in the distant past or legal outrages that have long since subsided. People Take Warning! collects disaster songs and murder ballads – recordings recounting natural and man-made catastrophes that were either in the daily headlines (such as the crash of Will Rogers and Wiley Post) or that had lingered in the popular imagination (six songs on the first disc of this collection recount the sinking of the Titanic, some recorded more than 15 years after the sinking).

That popular musicians would integrate tragic current events into their work strikes us as more than a little odd today (when we debate about whether artistic depictions have come along too soon after the events), and we are liable to wonder why musicians would write about events such as the fire at the Cleveland School in Camden, South Carolina, an event to which neither the artist nor the audience may have any particular connection.

One answer is simply that news was more difficult to come by in the early 20th century, and that disaster songs often furnished accurate accounts of events that may have been ignored or distorted by the sensationalist press of the day. To take just one example, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” performed by the Skillet Lickers on the first disc of PTW, was supposedly written the day after the wreck by one of the first men on the scene (the song was subject to a copyright dispute, with both purported authors claiming to have written the song shortly after participating in the rescue attempt).

This answer, however, is incomplete. People would have had no trouble getting news of the sinking of the Titanic or the Mississippi flood of 1927, and performers kept playing “The Wreck of the Old 97” decades after the train derailed in 1903. Disaster songs were prevalent in popular culture not only because they spread news of tragedy, but because they offered some insight into the meaning of such tragedies. People Take Warning! is divided into three discs: Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Man. The first two discs contain disaster songs – man-made, like train derailments or ships capsizing, and natural disasters, like earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. The third contains murder ballads, recounting infamous recent trials.

The songs’ messages are not as easy to divide as their topics. The Man vs. Machine songs superficially tell stories about wrecks and accidents, but the stories also involve people oppressed by growing industrialization and mammon. Just glancing at the titles of the disaster songs on the first disc – “The Brace Engineer,” “The Wreck of the Virginian,” and “Wreck of Number 52” – reminds you that railroads were one of the greatest industrial hazards of their day. Ernest Stoneman illustrated this point well enough on “The Fate of Talmadge Osborne,” the story of a passenger falling to his death while attempting to board a train, when he sings that “many a man’s been murdered by the railroad.” Indeed, many elements of American tort law grew out of lawsuits filed against railroads for wrongful death or injuries – “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife,” about a husband and wife run over while driving across a railroad crossing, is an all too typical example of the facts behind such suits.

If the songs on Man vs. Machine warn people to take heed of the indifferent forces of big business, the songs on Man vs. Nature warn people to take heed of God’s judgment. Green Bailey’s “The Santa Barbara Earthquake” tells of people killed in their sleep, unable to pray for their salvation. Vernon Dalhart’s “The Death of Floyd Collins” uses the media spectacle around the death of the famous explorer in Sand Cave to make the same point – even for the famous and celebrated, death can come at any time. Elder Curry saw the Memphis flu epidemic as punishment for the city’s iniquities, a punishment that fell on rich and poor alike. Bobby Miller, the performer of “Ohio Prison Fire,” sung of that tragedy as a more conventional conflict between rich and poor – namely, the state’s indifference to a tragedy that afflicted only forgotten (and largely poor) inmates.

The third disc, “Man vs. Man,” might be the most historically curious, given that murder ballads have disappeared from popular music, and their (literally) morbid subject matter now seems incongruous. Some of the songs here make the same point about sin and redemption as those on the first two discs. Ernest Stoneman, on “Kenny Wagner’s Surrender,” tells a first-person tale of murder that warns young men not to set off on the wrong path, lest they wind up taking the same awful path as the narrator. Other songs are ambivalent tales that appear like precursors to modern crime dramas. Kelly Harrell sings about Henry Clay Beattie, a man accused of murdering his wife and who The New York Times described as, “the coolest, most self-possessed person at the inquest.” The song portrays Beattie as similarly indifferent to his fate, resisting calls to confess and repent.

Of all the material on the third disc, I was struck most by Grayson & Whitter’s recording of “Tom Dooley.” It’s interesting not so much for the version of the song itself, but for the context behind it. Theirs was a version of a traditional song about Tom Dula’s (the lyrics to the song spelled his name phonetically) 1866 murder of Laura Foster, recorded in 1929, over sixty years after the events it describes. The Kingston Trio recorded the same song decades later and sold six million copies, in the process kicking off the folk music revival of the 1960s. The history of “Tom Dooley” is representative of the way American popular music changed from a small-scale, largely utilitarian enterprise into mass entertainment. Purely local news events became, over time, a way of demonstrating larger topical points (whether religious, economic, or political) and finally to becoming a form of American art accessible to any audience. Many of the performers on People Take Warning!, such as Vernon Dalhart (a best-selling country artist in his day), Ernest Stoneman (ditto), Memphis Minnie (later covered by Led Zeppelin) and Furry Lewis (later an opening act for the Rolling Stones), were themselves responsible for much of this evolution. People Take Warning! is a valuable document not only of long-lost disaster songs and murder ballads – of infamous stories otherwise lost to history – but also of a transition in American popular culture.

By Tom Zimpleman

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