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People have a natural tendency to think they’re living in a time that’s more morally decadent than the ones that preceded it. You don’t have to be an evangelical to believe that our materialistic, hedonistic culture is doomed; average cynical adults constantly compare the sexed-up, violent world around them to the perceived innocence of their own childhood. The mean-spirited torture-porn movies that fleck the cineplexes make me nostalgic for the schlocky slasher films of my youth. I grew up with the cartoon evil of Kiss’ Love Gun. Out now: Lietterschpich’s I Cum Blood in the Think Tank.
But it’s good to have a little historical perspective on human nature. People have been sex- and violence-obsessed dirtbags from the get-go, something proved by Aristophanes’ naughty writings, Petronius’ Satyricon, or Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” Hell, there’s as much breast-baring, dung-eating, and piss-drinking in the Old Testament as there is at the raunchiest Black Lips concert. Putting a spotlight on a previous generation’s obsession with humanity’s darker stuff, Tompkins Square Records has released People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913n1938. The musical styles featured on the three-CD set range from spectral hillbilly rags to rollicking gospel to Delta blues to maudlin folk numbers. The topics covered are as famous as the sinking of the Titanic and as obscure as a 1937 mine explosion in McBeth, W.Va.
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But our forefathers weren’t just a tinny-sounding and troubled lot, People Take Warning! also informs us that they readily engaged in schadenfreude. Without a centralized, instantaneous dispersal of news available—the liner notes explain that these tracks predate the mass popularity of radio and newsreels—the songs of others’ bad luck served the function of tabloid newspapers. These doleful ditties were often rushed onto 78-RPM discs to sate the public’s morbid taste for timely information on recent tragedies. In the case of Bill Cox’s two-part “Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann” from 1935, Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, in his illuminating liner notes, writes, “the forced lyric rhymes (resulting in pronunciations like JanuaRY [to rhyme with ‘story’]) speak to the deadline environment of his composition.”
The three discs are broken out by themes: “Man Vs. Machine,” “Man Vs. Nature,” and “Man Vs. Man (And Woman, Too).” The machines on the first disc are almost primarily modes of transportation, and they were written at a time when the technology of planes, trains, and automobiles was still nascent. “The Wreck of the Old Southern 97” by the Skillet Lickers concerns one of America’s most legendary locomotive accidents, a 1903 mail-train wreck that killed nine people. Vernon Dalhart’s version of the song became the first million-selling record in the United States; the Skillet Lickers’ 1927 version lacked the same marketability, but the group made up for it in enthusiasm and a liberal use of sound effects, like the cacophonous steam engine sound that startles when it arrives at the song’s climactic moment.
Christopher C. King, along with Sapoznik, assembled, annotated, and produced the compilation, and one of King’s key contributions was his skillful digital transfers of the old 78s. The two also deftly place obscure numbers like the Carver Boys’ “Brave Engineer” alongside more well-known songs like Furry Lewis’ two-part “Kassie Jones.” Even if you’ve heard Lewis’ version—or the Grateful Dead’s version, “Casey Jones”—many times before, the liner notes give the tune an added resonance, explaining that Lewis had lost his leg in a train accident when he was 17.
Though the theme of the second disc is “Man Vs. Nature,” it might as well have been titled “Man Vs. Lord’s Wrath.” The disc’s crown jewel is Elder Curry’s 1930 song “Memphis Flu.” What sounds like a joyous and buoyant gospel becomes harrowing when you discern that he’s gleefully singing: “Yes, you see! Yes! He killed the rich and poor/And He’s going to kill more/If you don’t turn away from your shame.”
Sapoznik ranks the commercial appeal of the songs on People Take Warning! by style: “murder ballads did better, and murder ballads written in the first person, (with their voyeuristic ‘you-are-there’ feel) did best of all.” The third disc, with its theme of man’s inhumanity to man, is the most disturbing—and the most moralizing—of the three, as if the songs are little Jack Chick tracts unto themselves. On his Hauptmann songs, Bill Cox specifically asks the man guilty of kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby about his salvation, “When the Master calls out each name/Will you stand with the blessed, in eternal rest/Or will you have to answer some shame?”
Similarly, Earl Johnson’s 1927 song “The Little Grave in Georgia” concerns the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. It’s a tragic, haunting country ballad, rendered even more tragic in the liner notes, which explain that it’s more than likely that an innocent man was tortured and lynched for the crime. Furry Lewis’ “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee” from 1927 is one of the great entries in the Stagger Lee canon. When Lewis resignedly tells Stack O’Lee to “learn to lose,” he might as well be addressing the many victims that populate this set’s songs.
The sentimentality of these songs can occasionally be a bit much: On Charlotte and Bob Miller’s 1930 tune “Ohio Prison Fire,” the two recreate overwrought dialogue between a grieving mother and the warden. And admittedly, listening to three discs of bad, bad news tends to make all these tragedies run together. Think of the Folksmen’s “Blood on the Coal,” the disaster-song parody from the mockumentary A Mighty Wind in which a train crashes into a coal mine. You half expect to hear a song in which a biplane pilot learns of the murder of his family and crashes into a luxury liner just before a hurricane comes along to mop up any survivors.