Oh, the Humanity

Hardly a collection of Harry Smith outtakes—although a number of his favorite songsters are represented—the 70 blood-chilling, ballad-heavy tales in People Take Warning! should dispel any sense of the good old days. Trains collide (with and without Casey Jones), planes crash (including the one carrying Will Rogers), zeppelins go down, buses plunge off bridges into ravines, levees break, schools (and prisons) burn, mines explode, and tornadoes wreak havoc. There are plagues, epidemics, droughts, and a slew of songs devoted to the great 1927 Mississippi flood. One disc concerns mechanical malfunctions, the second is devoted to acts of God, and the third belongs to the murderous. The effect is like thumbing through the gruesome old photographs in Wisconsin Death Trip or watching Fox 5 News or listening to Rudy Giuliani’s stump speech. “Crude and rudimentary pulp . . . the oral tabloids of the day,” writes Tom Waits in his appreciative introduction.

The most spectacular tabloid topical is Bill Cox’s two-part report from 1935 on the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, “The Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann.” Cox is also represented by that same year’s “Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post,” but Hank Sapoznik-—who co-produced this elegantly packaged item together with Christopher King—credits Vernon Dalhart’s 1925 “Death of Floyd Collins” (guy trapped in cave) with jump-starting the craze. Although old news by then, the Titanic was the disaster supreme; People Take Warning opens with Hi Henry Brown and Charlie Jordan’s 1932 blues: “Some was drinkin’/Some was playing cards/Some was in the corner prayin’ to their God.” Other tributes include Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt’s specially dedicated 1913 recording of the Hebrew prayer “El Mole Rachmin,” Ernest Stoneman’s cautionary “The Titanic” (1924), and three from 1927: medicine-show minstrel Rabbit Brown’s lively “Sinking of the Titanic,” Frank Hutchison’s phantasmagorical “The Last Scene of the Titanic,” and William and Versey Smith’s sensational, sanctified skiffle-beat “When That Great Ship Went Down,” one of only two songs here overlapping the Anthology of American Folk Music. For attitude, however, it’s hard to top the Dixon Brothers’ affably punitive 1938 “Down with the Old Canoe.”

People Take Warning is heavier on hillbilly than blues or gospel, which accounts for a certain sing-song monotony if you listen to all three hours in a single sitting. In his notes, Sapoznik makes the provocative observation that murder ballads and disaster songs were largely targeted at whites. That’s particularly apparent in the third disc, which includes only two race records, bad-man ballads both: the great Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis’s 1927 “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee” and Piedmont guitar picker Willie Walker’s 1930 “Dupree Blues.” The inference is that the ongoing social disaster of being African-American in America was not something to merchandise on records.

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