PEOPLE TAKE WARNING! (Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938)
Original Issue: 2007 Tompkins Square (TSQ1875) Buy it here!!!
Margot-meter: 5 moons / 5
Times are tough. Times are always tough. But times used to be much tougher.
A recent report noted the global rise of the standard of living, and the U.S. stock market keeps hitting all-time highs. Even if the relative prosperity of America is tempered by the troubling observation that, contrary to the usual positive economic indicators, life isn't getting much better, life in general doesn't seem that bad.
Every so often, though, we get a glimpse of what once was and what could very well be again. The precarious, precipitous housing market leads to talk of recession, which inevitably brings up depression. The Hurricane Katrina humanitarian disaster provided an alternate-reality view of the United States as Third World nation. The resolution of the United Auto Workers strike settled the weight of thousands of jobs bobbling in the balance. The death toll and number of wounded in Iraq and elsewhere creeps upward, reminders of a time when sacrifice was compulsory, not voluntary.
Yes, times are tough, but times used to be absolutely terrible-- rife with starvation, disease, extreme poverty, and senseless death. As relative prosperity continues unabated, perspective predictably fades. People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938 provides that perspective with three discs of abject misery, songs about misery, miserable people, and the miserable things they've done or that were done to them. It's the epitome of a bad trip back in time, and a riveting collection of musical snapshots capturing a country teetering on the edge of the abyss, looking down, and singing songs about what they see.
Titled "Man V. Machine", the first disc focuses on songs of train wrecks, plane crashes, and the odd car accident, and features lot of songs about the Titanic, in particular. The other two discs are titled "Man V. Nature" and "Man V. Man [And Woman, Too]", respectively, and tackle just what their names imply: natural disasters and good ol' fashioned murdering.
It's harrowing and horrifying stuff, but there's a twisted element of rueful humor to this set, too. "If it bleeds, it leads," goes the cynical journalism saying, and these horror stories, drawn from headlines, serve much the same purposes as the tabloids, providing tales of loss you can't turn away from. It's also a little like the scene of the accident on the side of the highway, with traffic slowed to a near halt so that everybody can get a good look, as if they don't already know what they're going to see.
You generally know what you're going to get here, too, but just because it's familiar sounding hardly means it's full of household names. The set inevitably includes a few songs from such usual suspects as Son House and Charley Patton, as well as often anthologized tracks like Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks". There are also plenty of well-known subjects, like the infamous Old 97 train, conductor Casey Jones, the doomed Tom Dooley, and the reliably murderous Stack O'Lee. But there are countless surprises as well, like "El Mole Rachmim (für Titanik)", a song that stresses how much the great ship's sinking resonated with recent Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
Music like this has always been the province of obsessive collectors, and it will probably always remain that way. But there's no question that having this music packaged together by experts and fans beats scouring estate sales for fragile 78s. Whether beautifully packaged (like the astounding gospel collection Goodbye, Babylon), thematically organized (the fun medicine show soundtrack Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937), or both (the still essential Anthology of American Folk Music, which, lest one forget, really was once just part of one man's collection), it's still remarkably powerful and moving all these years-- but really not that many-- later. As Tom Waits puts it in his introductory essay, "The scratches on the 78s sound like the ocean in a shell, and the songs are riding inside across time."