A Collection of Disaster Songs

In the early hours of Sept. 18, 1926, a Category 4 hurricane hit Florida, just south of Miami. Winds on the ground reached 125mph as the storm raked through downtown Miami in two terrible waves—the first produced a 15-foot storm surge that flooded much of the area, the second followed a lull that caused many to wrongly conclude that the worst had passed. Because so many residents did not evacuate, in nine short hours more than 250 people died, three times as many were injured, and 25,000 lost their homes.

The 1926 storm so devastated the region that eight years later it was still a prominent local topic of both conversation and, oddly enough, popular music. "The Storm That Struck Miami" is a raggedy waltz recorded by "Fiddlin'" John Carson and his daughter Rosa (Moonshine Kate) Lee in 1934, teeming with a mournfulness that the city's pummeled residents surely felt the morning after. ("The water fell in torrents for nine long hours or more," it goes. "The wind it blew about 100 miles an hour that swept the shore/ A hundred dead and many who will never be found/ And buildings that cost a million, wrecked there upon the ground.") The song sounds as much like a news bulletin as it does a fiddle tune, and that's the point.

"The Storm That Struck Miami" is one of 70 songs that comprise the chilling new three-CD folk, country and blues set "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938." Amazingly, almost every song in this collection commemorates (if that's the right word) something terrible that actually happened, each tune an ancestor of the cable-television news crawl. "If it bleeds, it leads," is the news business's oldest mantra. And, boy, do these old 78s bleed. Thousands of lives are lost over the course of this compilation: Will Rogers and Knute Rockne both go down in plane crashes; the Titanic sinks seven times; a hobo named Talmage Osborne tries to hop a train, gets his hands sliced off and bleeds to death; Charlie Lawson murders his wife and eight children on Christmas before turning the gun on himself; 76 teachers, parents and children are incinerated at a South Carolina grade-school graduation; Frankie Silvers, 18, is hanged after being convicted of killing her husband, Charlie, with an axe and then dismembering him. Some of the songs here were recorded while the bodies were still on their cooling boards. Bob Miller wrote and recorded "The Crash of the Akron," about a Navy zeppelin accident that killed all 74 on board, within one day of its April 1933 crash; Ernest Stoneman recorded "The Story of the Mighty Mississippi" in May 1927, the floodwaters still months away from receding. We could go on.

Compiled and coproduced by Christopher King—who previously had a hand in triumphant Charlie Poole and Charley Patton boxed sets—the gorgeously packaged "People Take Warning!" is organized thematically. The first disc is called "Man v. Machine" (devoted to songs about train wrecks, vehicular mayhem, John Henry), the second "Man v. Nature" (the flooding of the Mississippi, mine explosions, boll weevil infestations) and the third "Man v. Man" (Bruno Hauptmann, Tom Dooley, Stagger Lee). "In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Depression gripped the Nation," writes singer Tom Waits in the liner notes. "It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds." And the songs are as good as they are grisly. At their best, they're urgent, shocked and shocking. The "Memphis Flu" by Elder Curry is a roof-raising gospel shouter, heavy on morality ("Yes, God by His hand is judging this old land!"). At their worst, the songs are manipulative and exploitative (and still pretty damn good): "The Ohio Prison Fire," written by Bob Miller three days after 322 inmates were incinerated in a blaze set by fellow convicts, features a gratuitous dialog between a warden and a grieving mother come to identify her son's remains.

The listener can't help but be struck by how commonplace these disaster songs were in the pre-television era. "This was the media of the time period," says King, the compilation's coproducer. "Song writers, bards, were an essential part of society. These songs are actually supposed to make us cry, to empathize. Today we have a 24-news cycle, which sort of deadens all that." And exploitative or no, how many of us would know about the Ohio prison fire were it not for Miller, the ambulance-chasing troubadour. Today the closest parallel would be hip-hop, especially its thriving mix-tape subculture. Chuck D once claimed rap is "the black CNN." Days after Katrina washed through New Orleans, a rap duo called the Legendary K.O. recorded a brilliant, scathing rap called "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" over the beat to Kanye West's "Gold Digger" (hear it here or here).

But hip-hop never truly took root as a force for informing its listeners. "Hip-hop's political moment was remarkably short in retrospect and as prominent as that moment was, it never defined the whole of hip-hop," writes blogger, critic and Cal State University professor Oliver Wang in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "But really, what pop genres are that topical these days? I think you can always find exceptions, but for the most part, pop music is more useful to gauge an era's zeitgeist but not necessarily the day-to-day news cycle." Anyway, wouldn't it strike most of us as a little, well, tacky if someone rushed into the recording studio a day or two after the towers fell on 9/11? How offensive would we find the prospect of a pop song about the California wildfires already on the radio?

In some cases, songs like the Skillet Lickers' "Wreck of the Old Southern 97," about a mail train that jumped its track and plunged into a ravine in 1903, were recorded many years after the event. Sure, they preserve the memory of the dead. But these ditties were also frequently recycled and ripped off. Gradually, they've become fables for our modern era. "Now to all other men who drive this mountain, let this be a warning to you," sings Paul Miles in "Wreck on the Mountain Road," about trucker Lonnie Brown's untimely end. "He left his wife and two little children. The next one might be you." Carson's fiddle tune about the Miami flood includes the lines, "Some say in Miami folks had forgotten God/ They did not keep the Sabbath, since simple ways they trod/ People, all take warning and don't forget to pray/ For you too may meet your maker before the break of day." You'd be hard-pressed to find any political statements or institutional critiques here. But "People Take Warning!" might make you drive the speed limit for a change and hug your kids a little tighter on the way out the door. Even as you hum to yourself the strains of "Murder of the Lawson Family."