MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The Train Wreck of the Old '97, the plane crash that killed Knute Rockne, the Mississippi Flood of 1927 — those are a few of the many debacles captured in song on a Grammy-nominated box set. It's called "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938."
Music critic Meredith Ochs has a review.
MEREDITH OCHS: There's a cliche about the news business that goes like this: If it bleeds, it leads. But if you think that our collective fascination with bad news is an unfortunate byproduct of modern culture, take a listen to this song. It's one of hundreds written about the Titanic. The sinking of the great ship is now a major historic event, not to mention a major motion picture. But when it happened in 1912, it was headline fodder. And songwriters at the time took notice.
(Soundbite of "Titanic Blues")
Mr. HI HENRY BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Titanic taken in the deep blue sea. Titanic taken in the deep blue sea. And a band playing (unintelligible).
OCHS: The very title of this collection of music — "People Take Warning!" sounds like an utterance of caution against the looming industrial age when these songs were written. Much like newspaper men and women, musicians knew that sensationalistic songs would sell, especially if there was a morality tale involved. Plane and train crashes fueled the people's mistrust of modernity. Devastating fires and epidemics were surely God's way of ridding the world of evil. But nothing would prove as timeless as the murder ballad. There's a disc devoted entirely to shocking tales of inhumanity, like this true story about a young woman who axe-murdered her husband.
(Soundbite of song "Frankie Silvers")
ASHLEY & FOSTER (Group): (Singing) (unintelligible) I know I've seen (unintelligible) all his place in misery. With flaming eyes, he'll say to me, why did you take my life away.
OCHS: This three-CD box set of murder ballads and disaster songs is filled with misfortune and horror. But hidden amongst the chronicle of wretched events are some rare pre-war roots music gems, including what may be the very first truck-driving song. I'm a huge fan of trucking music, and I'd always thought that "Truck Driver's Blues" launched the genre in 1939. But this song, "Wreck on the Mountain Road," by a North Carolina group called The Red Fox Chasers, predates it by 11 years.
(Soundbite of "Wreck on the Mountain Road,")
THE RED FOX CHASERS (Group): (Singing) I don't wanna be (unintelligible) foot off the mountain, (unintelligible) out, it fill on the aisles and I (unintelligible) and he thought about (unintelligible) on the ground. Now with all other men (unintelligible) left to see a warning to you, (unintelligible) I see you.
OCHS: The notion of turning reportage into song is anachronistic in an era when information is immediate and disposable. Even songs about recent events like Hurricane Katrina were mostly prayers for the aftermath, not documents of the tragedy. But our connection to the past represented on this box set is right there on the evening news: Calamity still sells. Perhaps it gives us a little comfort that our lives aren't so bad after all. Or maybe it's because people just can't resist a good story.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: Our critic is Meredith Ochs. She reviewed the box set "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938."
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.