From the wreck of the Titanic through the Great Depression, American folk musicians regularly communicated stories of disasters and murders through song, often adding religious morals. New technologies, especially in transportation, had created a whole new category of disasters that singers and pickers could recount. They still retold the old stories, but they also wrote new, topical songs using old musical forms (and sometimes famous old melodies). Tompkins Square‘s new three-disc collection of these American murder ballads and disaster songs is an extensive, though by no means exhaustive, sampling of what Tom Waits calls in the liner notes the “oral tabloids of the day.”
Disc 1, “Man V Machine,” includes many songs about railroad disasters, from famous stories like the Old 97 and Casey Jones to obscurities like Ernest Stoneman’s tale of a fellow named Talmadge Osborne who died trying to get on a moving freighter, and Alfred Reed’s “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife,” whose wagon got hit by a train. There are auto, airship, and airplane crashes, and a weird reworking of the John Henry legend called “Bill Wilson” by the Birmingham Jug Band. The Titanic is well represented, most curiously in a recording of a traditional Hebrew prayer recorded in 1913 by Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt, and a stream-of-consciousness spoken word ramble by Frank Hutchison written fifteen years after the great ship went down.
Disc 2, “Man V Nature,” deals with “natural” events like fires, floods, drought, pestilence, and disease. (Times haven’t changed all that much since Old Testament days, have they?) The great Mississippi flood of 1927 weighs heavily in this group; rock fans will recognize the basis for Led Zeppelin’s classic “When the Levee Breaks,” recorded here in 1929 by Kansas Joe and the great guitarist Memphis Minnie. But there was a great variety of disasters to sing about. Charlie Patton’s compelling first recording, “Boll Weevil Blues,” is here, contrasting interestingly with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s take on the same subject. Charlotte and Bob Miller’s rendition of “Ohio Prison Fire,” written just three days after the dreadful 1930 blaze that killed more than 300 prisoners, includes an extended spoken dialogue between a grieving mother and the warden, while Blind Alfred Reed’s “Explosion in the Fairmount Mine” uses an unusual minor chord to dramatize a child’s premonition of that 1907 disaster.
The styles range from early country music to rural proto-blues to some more indefinable, eccentric sounds, but the majority of the troubadors are white singers from the rural south. As the liner notes explain, black artists were generally classified as “blues” even if they were doing music that resembled that of their white counterparts, so that relatively few ballads and disaster songs were released for the black audience – ironic considering the magnified hardships faced by rural black folks in those days. (But note the significant exceptions, like Son House, Furry Lewis, the aforementioned Charlie Patton, and singers in the early gospel “sanctified” tradition.)
The songs on Disc 3, “Man V Man (And Woman, Too),” recount violent deaths at the hands of cops, angry lovers, crazed fathers, outlaws, lynch mobs, and the State. Most were real events of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the stories are exactly like those of today. Plus ça change is the clearest message these musical tales send to us in the 21st.
The handsome packaging and liner notes include background on the songs, the recordings, and the artists, many period photos, and selections from the lyrics. Famous disasters and familiar characters like Tom Dooley, Stack O’Lee, Bruno Hauptmann, Casey Jones, and even Pretty Polly mingle with obscure local tales and the nameless (but, through these songs, not forgotten) dead of disasters past. The music isn’t consistently great, and some of it is readily available elsewhere, but it’s all interesting; taken together, it’s a fascinating treasure trove of doom, and an enjoyable lesson in how American history played an intimate part in defining the popular music of the period – music that gave birth to the forms and songs we listen to today.