NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Songs of Tragedy and Disaster

Messages of Doom and Gloom Uplift Us All

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

There was a time in American history when so-called saga songs reported and commented upon the major news events of the day, especially about great tragedies and disasters. No disaster was complete without its saga song of commemoration. Country singers and blues singers especially — with their storytelling tradition — were adept at turning high drama into dramatic songs.

In the past, I’ve been privileged to meet some of these story-telling troubadours. The great Texas bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins could sit down and spin you musical yarns for hours about local and regional events and tragedies. Country singer Red River Dave McEnery penned epic songs about such events as the murder of actress Sharon Tate with “The California Hippy Murders,” newspaper heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping in “The Ballad of Patty Hearst” and the nuclear meltdown scare in “The Ballad of Three-Mile Island.” But his greatest fame came with his epic song about the disappearance of a famed aviatrix. He sang “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” on one of the first commercial TV broadcasts from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and then called himself “The World’s First Television Star.” What the hell, maybe he was.

A number of such event songs have been assembled for a compelling new CD boxed set, releasing Sept. 25. People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 includes 70 songs, a nice introduction by Tom Waits and a booklet with much fascinating information and many historic images.

Epic train wrecks made wonderful songs. “Wreck of the Old 97″ is a song that I still hear performed live now and then. Different versions of the epic of the doomed train engineer Casey Jones are included by blues singer Furry Lewis and country group the Skillet Lickers.

The sinking of the great new “unsinkable” ocean liner the Titanic in 1912 was terrific fodder for the event singers. My late mother-in-law, who then was a child living in a coal mining town in Kentucky, recalled traveling salesmen coming by door-to-door in 1913 to sell books and records about the Titanic.

Ernest “Pop” Stoneman’s “The Titanic” is included here, along with “When That Great Ship Went Down” by William and Versey Smith, the “Last Scene of the Titanic” by Frank Hutchison and “Titanic Blues” by “Hi” Henry Brown and Charlie Jordan.

Then there are the pathetic headline story songs, such as “The Little Grave in Georgia” by Earl Johnson, “Fingerprints Upon the Windowpane” by Bob Miller, “Fate of Rhoda Sweeten” by Wilmer Watts, “The Murder of the Lawson Family” by the Carolina Buddies and “The Bluefield Murder” by Roy Harvey & the North Carolina Ramblers.

Weather disasters are much sung about. Floods, tornados, fires, levee breaks, earthquakes, cyclones and drought. Car wrecks, bus wrecks, plane crashes, disastrous fires, mine explosions and influenza epidemics were ever-ready topics. The legendary figures Tom Dooley and Staggerlee are the subjects of numerous saga songs.

There are some musical masters here, on the order of Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Charlie Patton, Son House, Carson Robison, Riley Puckett and Vernon Dalhart. You don’t have to be a history wonk to enjoy such historical gems.

Oddly, the effect of such cathartic songs is salubrious. There was a reason that people dealt with tragedy by tackling it head-on with stark songs of reality. The songs ultimately make you feel good.

War songs, especially in country music, used to be rampant. It’s interesting that contemporary songs about the Iraq war have totally disappeared. Why do you suppose that is?