Various Artists – Tompkins Square, People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

These 70 sides of early country, blues and even pop, 30 of them new to CD, are the descendants of the troubadours, those European musicians who traveled from town to town during the Middle Ages, spreading the news of the day. In the global village that formed with the advent of the radio and recording industries, people already knew the facts of the news stories, so the musicians usually had to analyze events instead; they were more like commentators than reporters, offering a moral to the story or maybe just solace.

A bounty of musical tales detailing the trials and travails of Depression-era America

As the title of this collection suggests, the news here is uniformly bad. Disc One gathers songs about mechanical disasters, from the sinking of the Titanic (which alone warrants seven tracks) and tales of Casey Jones and the Old Southern 97 to lesser known catastrophes involving trains, planes, trucks and buses. Disc Two deals with natural disasters such as the Mississippi Delta floods of 1927 and various fires, tornados and such, while Disc Three is perhaps the most grisly and least revelatory of the bunch, describing fatal acts of human mayhem against other humans and offering more familiar songs (mainly traditional murder ballads like “Tom Dooley,” “Naomi Wise” and “Pretty Polly”) than its two predecessors.

Bob Miller proves the Rupert Murdoch of the 1930s, with three sensational contributions, more than any other artist except Ernest Stoneman, including (with his wife Charlotte Miller) “Ohio Prison Fire,” the cheesiest, sleaziest and ultimately kitschiest of the batch. (In other words, don't miss it!) But that one's more the exception than the rule: whether offering personal testimony (Charlie Patton's “High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 & 2″) or telling listeners that it's all God's way of dealing with sinners (Elder Curry's “Memphis Flu,” Fiddlin'John Carson's “Storm That Struck Miami”), whether kissing off 1,500 dead white rich people with perhaps the most acidic sentimentality ever recorded (Rabbit Brown's “The Titanic”) or tsk-tsking the mental collapse and suicide of the wife of a car thief (Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles'”Fate of Rhoda Sweeten”), these meticulously detailed story-songs nearly always transcend their time and place emotionally to say something timeless about the human condition.

The musicianship, predictably, ranges from amateur to inspired, but the singers in particular are unforgettable: nearly every voice is completely different from the others, no small feat given how many are represented here. When you're dealing with material like this, technique simply isn't what matters most: what's being said, and how, is far more important. Believe it, brothers and sisters.