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Box Sets

Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, December 7, 2007, Music

People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938

(Tompkins Square)

Seventy songs culled from 25 years of early American roots music divide this 3-CD retrospective, a Depression-era history lesson introduced by murder-ballad and disaster-song expert Tom Waits. He writes that these songs "are crude and rudimentary pulp. These were the oral tabloids of the day." And the news was grim: prison fires, boll weevils, railroad accidents, floods. The packaging is sepia-toned and textbooklike, with photos of train wrecks and mine explosions, detailed histories of every song, and an overview of what was essentially the beginning of the blues. As a testament to the diversity of disaster back then, the three discs also have themes. Man v Machine laments, most famously, the Titanic, among other mechanical failures, sung by the people who knew the blues: Memphis "preblues" man Furry Lewis, we're told, had a wooden leg thanks to a train accident. It's those tidbits that make the discs come to life, which helps because the sound quality on many of the songs is horrible. Nevertheless, there are gems under the scratches. Man v Nature uncovers a white-hot "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie, as well as Charlie Patton's two-part "High Water Everywhere" and Son House's "Dry Spell Blues, Part 2." Disc three, Man v Man (and Woman, Too), finally gets around to the murder ballads with feel-good titles like "The Murder of the Lawson Family" and "Poor Ellen Smith." Though the songs are a mixed and morose bunch, their rebirth from a time when death was everywhere is murder.


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