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Disaster Ballads Make Comeback

In the early part of the 20th centurry, American record companies sent talent scouts into the hills and mountains of the southeastern United States looking to record the music of blues and mountain, or hillbilly, musicians. Many of these songwriters wrote about murders and disasters both man made and natural. Jeff Swicord reports on one music producer who is bringing these tragic ballads from the past to a modern audience.

Recording engineer and producer Chris King has a passion for old blues, hillbilly and country music records from the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Kings explains how he got started collecting the music. He says, "The recording collecting thing really didn't start until I was in high school. You know when I started to get interested in playing music and playing the guitar and banjo and my dad gave me a couple of 78s and we started going around door to door looking for them."

King's collection has grown to more than 5,000 recordings, some of them quite rare. He explains one recording in his collection, "This is John Henry blues by the two poor boys, Evans and Mclean."

King spends a lot of time rummaging through antique stores and going door to door in old neighborhoods in southern United States looking for records.

"I was going door to door in an old neighborhood in Charleston, just asking people if they had any old records in their basement or any of phonograpns. And a real nice lady pulled out a whole batch of records and this was in there," Kings said.

King's boyhood passion of compiling and remastering records grew into a profession as an adult, and his work has won critical acclaim. He has received four Grammy Award nominations. He won this Grammy for a CD-set titled, "Screaming and Hollering the Blues: The World of Charlie Patton," distributed by Dean Blackwood and Revenant Records.

The work is difficult, yet rewarding King says, "I worked very hard for about four months under a tight deadline because Dean wanted to have that out by the end of the year. And so, we worked real hard, got all the clean copies together and remastered it and sure enough it got nominated for a Grammy and then won."

His latest project is a compellation of disaster related themes titled, "People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs from 1913-1938 distributed by Thompson Square Records." American singer and songwriter Tom Waits wrote the introduction for the compellation.

With admiration, King says, "If anybody had a natural proclivity or inclination toward this music it was Tom. And he enthusiastically agreed to write it."

The 3 CD-Set has been nominated for a Grammy this year. The set features songs such as, "The Listing of the Titanic" by West Virginia musician Frank Hutchison.

And, "The Wreck of the Old 97" a humorous train wreck song from 1927 recorded by the hillbilly band, The Skillet Lickers.

Chris King says the music of this era may be about horrible tragedies, but there is always a sense of humanity, empathy, and sometimes even humor in them. "There were these ballads that where more are less constructed…that were shared from town to town and community to community to tell a story. To tell the story of say, of a lady being killed because she was pregnant and her lover didn't want to marry her or accept the child."

King says the response to "People Take Warning" has been overwhelmingly positive both in the U.S. and Europe. He says, because it represents a style of story telling that is slowly disappearing from the American cultural landscape. "We don't have that anymore. I guess the question it brought to me was, what have we lost by this? Is this part of humanity or part of ourselves that we have lost?"