February 28, 2008

People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs

People_Take_Warning.jpgLong before there was tabloid mass media (or indeed any mass media at all), the public taste for sensational tales of calamity and murderous iniquity was slaked by ballad writers who made a living by hawking the sheet music for their overwrought takes on these public tragedies.

In the early twentieth century, when gramophones became commonplace, these sheet music sales were supplemented by recordings and, in no time at all, the murder/disaster exploitation song became a mainstay of the recording industry; a position that it maintained well into the late 1930’s. (After that, its popularity waned as people gained greater access to more immediate sensationalism, courtesy of radio and newsreels.)

Although the genre could extend to any event that aroused public horror, sorrow or outrage, the ballad writers were most commonly inspired by train wrecks, floods, fires, boll weevils, murders of pregnant women by their lovers, and the sinking of Titanic… Or, at least, that’s impression one gets from People Take Warning, a comprehensive 3 disc survey of this once thriving genre that came out last year on Tompkins Square Records.

Musically, the collection traverses just about every “folk” genre that was being recorded in the States in the first three decades of the twentieth century – old-time, blues, country, Gospel, Cajun, and even a Yiddish lament (one of the half dozen songs devoted to the Titanic). And the treatment given to their uniformly grim subject matter is no less varied. Take the following three tracks as examples.

The first one is the aforementioned Titanic-inspired Yiddish lament, a wailing evocation of grief that’s almost visceral in its intensity. Contrast this with Barbecue Bob’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”, an unintentionally comic piece of disaster-ploitation in which Bob bemoans the fact that the Great 1927 Mississippi Flood has swept all the womenfolk away. As a result, he can’t find a “sweet mama” to “shake that thing with [him]”. (Historical note: Bob wasn’t even in Mississippi at the time of the flood. According to the liner notes, he was “more than likely in Georgia or New York”.)

Finally, there’s Bob Miller's ode to a 1930 Ohio Penitentiary Fire, which killed 322 inmates. Despite its apparent sincerity, the song is a complete (if entertaining) dog’s breakfast; which combines an incongruously jaunty melody with clunky doggerel, a mind-bogglingly overwrought vignette centred on a distraught mother identifying her son’s charred remains, and a final touchingly humanistic homily that reminds the listener that prisoners are people too.

El Mole Rachmim (Fur Titanik) - Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt
Mississippi Heavy Water Blues - Barbecue Bob Hicks
Ohio Prison Fire - Bob Miller

This wonderful collection comes with eloquent, deal-sealing liner notes from Tom Waits and can be purchased from all good online record emporia.

Posted by Warren at February 28, 2008 10:30 PM | Early Recordings