In 1930, commercial radio was still a novelty, and television and CNN were as fanciful as the notion of travel to Alpha Centauri. In the rural southern United States, still largely bereft of electrical power, news traveled slowly, and was usually conveyed not by professional journalists, but by itinerant musicians who set up shop on the steps of the general store, or in the jukejoint on the outskirts of town.
People Take Warning!, a 3-CD box set about to be released by Tompkins Square Records, collects 70 topical songs recorded between 1927 and 1938. These are songs you might have once heard on the general store steps or in the jukejoint, and they chronicle disasters great and small – floods and tornadoes, hurricanes and fires, prison riots and sinking ships, crashing airplanes and collapsing coal mines and serial killers; a whole panoply of tragedy and devastation. Not surprisingly given the early recording technology, the sound is abysmal. The performances range from mediocre to superb. And the songs themselves are utterly harrowing. The deaths per song ratio has to be higher here than any music not related to Auschwitz or Hiroshima.
There are well-known, even legendary performers here – Son House and Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole and Furry Lewis, delightfully mixed together during a time when genres like “blues” and “country” were not so rigidly defined. Even more impressive are the one-hit and no-hit wonders who appear in this collection, perhaps once famous on the local circuit, now lost to the cultural memory – Richard “Rabbit” Brown, an old medicine show performer who frequented the steamboats and barroms of New Orleans, traveling evangelist Elder Curry, who saw the Memphis flu epidemic of 1930 as the judgment of God, the Dykes Magic City Trio, whose murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” was outlawed by the local North Carolina sherriff because it caused a riot whenever it was sung. There’s also Kansas Joe’s and Memphis Minnie’s 1929 recording of“When the Levee Breaks,” a song you have may seen credited to the old itinerant bluesmen Page/Plant.
It’s ancient music, to be sure, and the pious sermonizing and saccharrine sentimentality surely mark it from another, distant era. But it’s surprising how contemporary some of these songs still sound. “The Muder of the Lawson Family” could be an outtake from Springsteen’s Nebraska. And the grizzled Bob Dylan is still recording songs like this, and “Nettie Moore” from Modern Times could be lifted directly from this collection. It’s a fascinating glimpse into our musical past, and an ongoing reminder of how little some things have changed. I watch scenes on CNN of miners trapped in Utah, and these songs form the soundtrack in my mind.