Sunday, November 2, 2008

People Take Warning! pt. 1: Man V Machine

The great Nick Tosches, one of my fave writers on music, boxing, the mob and a lot of other subjects, recently said the following about the People Take Warning! box set: "I've been sitting here watching the remains of this short-lived country go down the drain, and there is no better soundtrack to this than People Take Warning!, a grand and beautiful set - in every sense, from the remastered recordings to the notes to the extraordinary design work - that gives perspective both to these days and those of the past. This is white-hot history, a danse macabre, and, above all, a wealth of great old and timeless music."

Can´t agree more, Nick. People Take Warning!, subtitled ´Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938´, is a treasure trove of lovingly compiled old 78´s that sounds absolutely timeless. Released last year on the tiny Tompkins Square label, there´s some overlap with other compilations of the period such as Harry Smith´s Anthology Of American Folk Music, but not nearly so much to give it a miss.

The informative and beautifully designed booklet includes a foreword by none other than Tom Waits. "All are contained here: tragic chronicles of the perils of being human. Songs that are roadside graves dug quickly with crosses made from kindling while the grief was still fresh," he writes, and he´s right on the mark. In the era they were recorded (often mere days after a certain incident took place), these songs more or less served as newspaper articles.

We´re talking about a three disc set here, all with their own theme. Disc 2 is entitled Man V Nature and covers songs about natural disasters such as floods, epidemics and tornadoes. Disc 3 is called Man V Man (And Woman, Too) and deals exclusively with murder. In this post, let´s take a look at the first disc, Man V Machine, which is all about train wrecks, crashing cars and planes, and of course sinking ships, with special attention to the Titanic disaster.

Wreck Of The Old 97 is probably the most famous of all old time disaster songs. Johnny Cash played it a lot. It´s about the crash of mail train #97, which ran off the track and fell into a ravine somewhere in Virginia back in 1903. Nine people were killed. "They were goin' down the grade makin' 90 miles an hour, when his whistle broke into a scream... He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, and scalded to death by the steam."

A great lonesome whistle serves as the intro to Cliff Carlisle´s Wreck Of Number 52, which chronicles the event of a trainfull of cattle getting derailed when it struck a spike left on the track by a small boy at play. "On his deathbed Allen lay from the burns he got that day, his wife and his children by his side... Then he heard the Master call, and he left them one and all, for Allen had taken his last ride." 

Down With The Old Canoe is one of many great songs about that seemingly infallible ship hitting the fateful iceberg, and probably my favorite of them all. "They all went down to never rise no more..." The concept of calling the Titanic an old canoe alone is priceless...

Watch this space for People Take Warning! pts. 2 and 3, containing many more goodies of the Depression era. Soon!

Skillet Lickers - Wreck Of The Old 97 MP3
Cliff Carlisle - Wreck Of Number 52 MP3
Dixon Brothers - Down With The Old Canoe MP3

1 comment:

ib said...

Great stuff!

"Wreck Of Number 52"... Superb. Imagine the guilt.