MASTERS OF DISASTER

 

Tompkins Square collects murder ballads and disaster songs on People Take Warning.

By
RANDY HARWARD

 

 

Christopher
King grew up in Bath
County, on the West
Virginia/Virginia line, in what he calls an epicenter of storied, tragic events
like the Wreck of the Old 97. “When I was growing up, it seemed like everything
we did was sort of painted by all these disasters,” he says. It was natural,
then, for him to bond with the music of the time, amassing a huge collection of
78 rpm records that chronicled these disaster songs and their close cousin,
murder ballads and, with co-producer Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, create People Take Warning! Murder Ballads &
Disaster Songs 1913-1938
(Tompkins
Square). The three-disc, 70-song set (with a
48-page book featuring lyrics, stories, photos and introduction by Tom Waits) collects
the work of Charlie Patton, Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Poole, Son House and Uncle
Dave Macon, which still resonates today (especially when Kansas Joe and Memphis
Minnie render the ominous “When the Levee Breaks”).

 

It’s interesting timing,
coming out two weeks after the anniversary of 9/11. Was that a concern when
considering the release date?

 

Sure,
on a very subliminal level, I knew that this related not only to probably our
nation’s worst disaster, but it also ties in with the Katrina flood which
devastated New Orleans and this horrible
catastrophe involving the miners in Utah.
I guess what it shows more than anything else is the subject matter of this
project is universal. Obviously I didn’t want it to be put out on September 11th …but the issue is to be human is to face disaster and face these events. It
will resonate practically every person on a different level. Tom [Waits] in his
introduction, said that this is basically the meat and potatoes of the music
industry, these disaster songs.

 

He also says that these
are from a time when songs were tools for living.

 

It’s
hard for me to think of songs nowadays that actually are tools for living. I
mean, when I first presented Tom with [the idea] he said, “They just don’t make
songs like this anymore.” And I think it’s just because of the temporal state
that we’re living in right now. We don’t really have to write songs like this
to commemorate life because we have a 24-hour news cycle which [laughs] sorta
deadens it pretty quickly.

 

Well, you have guys like
Billy Bragg and Steve Earle, whose songs could be tools for living, but lately people
prefer fast food—pop—to home cookin’.

 

One
of the few things that people don’t recognize is that [this] is essentially pop
music. Vernon Dalhart…
he did in excess of 300 sides; he was the best-selling artist of the 1920s and
1930s, and this sort of news song/disaster song was [his] bread-and-butter. So
it just seems like it’s a paradigm shift in music, where it just seems like the
stuff that was crafted back then had this integrity to it, an honest feeling
about loss and mourning.

 

How about murder ballads?
It seems like the last one to gain popular attention was Warrant’s “Uncle Tom’s
Cabin.” What does that say about our times?

 

There’s
actually two types of songs that this set demonstrates. Songs that organically
grow up in a community like “Pretty Polly”… they more or less weren’t composed;
they were passed on from generation to generation. Then there are these other
types that are written [shortly] after the actual event that can include a lot
of heartfelt remorse about the killing of a person [while some of] these people
made their living by it. In a way, they were murder ballad ambulance chasers;
it was their job to get something out as soon as possible to exploit the fact.
I wouldn’t know enough about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to comment. I would say that
composing a song about the murder of somebody is still perfectly legitimate. 

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