Song As History and News Commentary

The deluge of songs that followed in the wake of 9/11, or ones that reference that day's events, range from the obscure to the omnipresent, an outpouring of music and lyrics that traps the moment in amber as much as any other number of cultural pieces since then. It's appropriate that the three-disc People Take Warning! (Tompkins Square) appears shortly after another anniversary of that day—no direct connection is there in its collection of 1910s to 1930s folk, blues, gospel and other recordings, while Tom Waits' introduction and the liner notes don't invoke it, either. Yet the focus of this remarkable compilation—the latest effort coordinated by the deservedly praised anthologist Hank Sapoznik and sonic restorer Christopher King, whose past work includes 2005's stellar Charlie Poole boxed set—addresses a common human reaction then and now: How best to remember disasters and destruction?

In a time of overt, constant politicization of the dead, People Take Warning! is as close to hand as it is inevitably distanced due to time and changing tastes—though in the latter case, those tastes have proven remarkably long-lived. The constant reappraisal of what critic/scholar Greil Marcus memorably termed “old weird America” since the days of Harry Smith's famous folk-music anthology on Folkways continues apace here. There are monophonic, trebly, one-take recordings of solo performers; group ensembles; fiddles like tuneful banshees; fingerpicking guitars; autoharps; and sudden surprising additions (check out the Skillet Lickers' train sound effects on “Wreck of the Old 97”). Familiar names like Charlie Patton are set against obscurer performers such as Elder Curry and the utterly sappy Bob Miller. King's work at remastering these tracks is a revelation—in keeping with his earlier efforts, he eschews “perfect” noise reduction for a sound that is vibrant, lively, hot. There's a spark to hearing these songs, and a moment like Frank Hutchison's wry, rambling “Last Scene of the Titanic”—the 9/11 of its day, with several selections about that disaster featured in the set's first disc—sounds like he's sitting down and practically talking in your ear, or at least across a hushed, crowded room.

But if the model for People Take Warning! is familiar, the results can often twist expectations, and not simply because so many of the selections—grouped per disc into people versus machines, nature and fellow humans—haven't been reissued before. On the breathtaking side, consider another Titanic memorial, cantor Joseph Rosenblatt's interpretation of the traditional “El Mole Rachmim,” a truly beautiful voice/organ lament sung in Hebrew, an interjection of Middle Eastern scales amid a disc of more restrained Anglo-Celtic song forms. This said, both Waits and Sapoznik make clear in the booklet how so many of these pieces were on-the-spot hackwork rather than attempts to be lasting art, and there's a perfectly awful example provided. “Ohio Prison Fire”—another Bob Miller number, along with (presumably) his wife, Charlotte—is the “Once You Understand” or “Dear Mr. Jesus” of its time, making most melodramatic skits on hip-hop albums seem like models of restraint. With the two acting out roles as a victim's mother and a prison warden, their hyperschmaltz turns long-ago tragedy into endless comedy, guaranteed to clear out any party that's gone on too long.

For all the commercial reasons behind any number of the cuts, the tensions in them still cut raw: workers perishing in a time of extreme labor unrest; a lack of succor in the face of natural disaster (one of the collection's more familiar cuts, Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie's “When the Levee Breaks,” is all too on-point after Hurricane Katrina's extended agonies); murders committed out of misogynistic jealousy and fear—and even a then-new sorrow, plane crashes. God is invoked countless times, but seems only to preside over a world in which death is random and what hope there is is far from guaranteed, even in the chattiest songs.

No matter how many generations have passed, the distance between People Take Warning!'s contents and something like Alan Jackson's “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?” is less than might be guessed.


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