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people are always drawn to the scene of an accident and it was no different in the past either…
A simply stunning 3 x CD box set that is now out of print and unavailable unless you’re willing to pay an absolute fortune. It’s the real deal of authentic folk and country from black and white performers from the dawn of the roots of America’s musical traditions. Seventy beautifully remastered recordings with over half on CD for the first time. So here’s your chance to download it but be quick and if you have any problems leave a comment.
Close your eyes and hear the suffering through the ages, as disasters both great and small are relived in song by roving musicians with only a fiddle or a guitar to stake their claim on history.
Close your eyes and see the carnage reenacted. In Frank Hutchison’s ‘Last Scene of the Titanic’, see all the pretty ladies in their evening gowns and all of the tuxedoed gentlemen plummet over the deck of the great juggernaut as it collides with a massive iceberg, sending them wailing and flailing and thrashing in a demonic ballet into the icy Atlantic waters.
Open your ears and hear the plaintive cry of a child in the night, who wakes from a portentous dream in which his daddy is trapped in the interminable blackness of the coal mine, Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘Explosion in the Fairmount Mine’, only to discover that dear daddy was indeed trapped in a mine explosion and is one of 200 unrecovered miners never to see the light of day again.
True-life scenes such as these are the subject of this massive box-set, in which seemingly congenial-sounding folk and blues songs from the early twentieth century document disasters and real-life tragedies with a quiet intensity that disturbs the casual listener far more than any contemporary death metal band could. This is not Sturm und Drang, this is real pain and suffering devoid of fantasy or romanticism. These are songs for the legions of anonymous dead, musical coffin markers for the ones who were lost along the way.
Highlights range from the grim to the funny. In ‘Mississippi Heavy Water Blues’, Robert ‘Barbecue Bob’ Hicks complains that the murky brown flood waters have washed all the wimmenfolk away. The original version of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie remains a haunting testament to the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Charlie Poole’s ‘Baltimore Fire’ is spectral in its account of hundreds consumed by the flames of a raging inferno. Then there’s my personal favourite, Bob Miller’s ‘Ohio Prison Fire’, in which a distraught mother is asked to identify the charred remains of her late lamented son:
“I’ll take my boy back now.
The state’s finished with him.
The state’s finished with all of these bodies.
These poor, charred bodies!”
Disc Three switches the focus to murder ballads, showcasing songs of cold-blooded homicide that have clearly influenced the work of such hard boiled musical greats as Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits, the latter providing the eloquent introduction to this set. Early versions of such blood-soaked ballads as ‘Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee’, the legend of Stack O’Lee or “Stagger Lee” exists in many forms, and ‘Darling Cora’, also known as ‘Darling Corey’, stand alongside lesser-known death row oddities like ‘The Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, Pts. I & II’ an ode to the murderer of the Lindbergh baby. True crime buffs may favor this disc as much as musicologists.
Special mention should be made to the impeccable sonic reproduction by Christopher King, who understands the mystical power inherent in the snap, crackle and pop of old 78 records and faithfully reproduces the elusive sound of the victrola, cranked up and wailing away like a banshee in a tin can. The static of these old grooves perfectly encases the sadness of bygone eras like ancient beetles trapped in amber. Timeless and lifeless.
In today’s post-9/11 world, the fear of arbitrary annihilation is almost taken for granted, yet this collection serves as a moving reminder that tragedies of every kind have always lived on in the music of American folk musicians, perhaps to serve as a talisman for future generations.
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Part of the ‘Classic Album Reviews’ series (here) where we bring you something a little bit different to what you’re use to. To lost gems that have inspired and provoked folk music and musicians right up to modern celtic-punk music. Usually out of print so we can provide a free download link for you.