Lately, I’ve been listening to a quirky-yet-fascinating 3-CD box set I stumbled across at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free library – truly one of our city’s greatest treasures – called “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938.”
I know what you’re thinking – fun stuff. This guy must be loads of laughs at cocktail parties.
Lady Gaga or Katy Perry this ain’t.
Don’t ask me what draws me to this kind of old-time music and its rather grim, ironic, archaic tunes of death, destruction and disaster, recorded by long-deceased, usually-quite-obscure-in-their-day performers. Call it “O Brother Syndrome.” It’s like listening to the distant voices of anguished spirits, or as music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus calls it, “the old, weird America.”
But if you love “roots music,” this 2007 collection – featuring 70 recordings and co-produced by Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, the great proponent of traditional Yiddish and American music – is absolutely amazing stuff. Most of the songs are about the sinking of the Titanic (quite a national preoccupation!), train wrecks, plane crashes, mine explosions, earthquakes, floods, famines, fires, hurricanes, dust storms, droughts, and of course, that old standby of human nature, homicide. (Interestingly, one of the tracks is a chilling 1913 recording of the El Malei Rachamim prayer performed by the illustrious Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, specifically for the victims of the Titanic.)
In their own way, these songs were the Twitter alerts, Facebook postings, and CNN or MSNBC breaking news headlines of their era. They were melodic messages in a bottle, informing the public of some calamity or atrocity, often within days and geographic spitting distance of the tragedy. These fabulous, scrappy, twangy artists – on their banjos, harmonicas, jugs, kazoos, Jew’s harps, etc.—let people know what was going on, without any sugarcoating or holding back at all, and usually even threw in a moral or two about fate or one’s ethical conduct. Brilliant stuff.
So what does this all have to do with 2011?
We are in the midst of being bombarded with the painful, haunting images of 9/11. With the 10th anniversary upon us, that horrible day hangs heavy in our psyche and in our souls. The media is already revisiting this topic with photos and images of the towers, aflame and in rubble, almost as if we’ve somehow forgotten what 9/11 looked like, as if it wasn’t already indelibly seared into our brains, as if we could ever escape it.
That was a deadline news day for us here, working on our annual Rosh Hashanah issue, and 9/11 meant watching the tragedy unfold on television as Americans and then getting down to journalistic business and writing about it all very quickly. No easy feat. It was a long day and night.
One thing I remember is chatting with an art department co-worker toward the end of the afternoon, when everyone was in high gear and deadline was looming. At one point, I noticed she’d placed a Post-it note on the edge of her computer screen, simply with the scribbled words, “September 11th, 2001.” When I asked her why she’d put that note on her screen, she replied, “I just want to have that date up there, to remember this day, so I don’t forget it.” I stared at her and said, “Kiddo, don’t worry, this is a date you’re never, ever going to forget.”
True enough. But at the same time, there’s a lot of overstating and grandstanding when it comes to 9/11, something we all have to be careful of because of the solemn nature of this historical event. Too often, we call 9/11 the day that changed our lives or changed America. It’s true that we’ve all been forced to become somewhat more vigilant and careful in our lives since that day, and our foreign policy has transformed drastically. Our confidence and sense of security was shattered.
But on a personal level, few of us – outside of those who lost loved ones that day—have experienced major changes in our lives as a result of 9/11. I remember a couple of friends, after the tragedy, remarking to me that they no longer enjoyed watching sports, because 9/11 compelled them to realize that athletic competitions had very little to do with the order of the cosmos. Despite their lapse into existentialism, I believe all of them returned to their obsessions with sports. Other friends mentioned to me that they decided to take big vacations after 9/11, again with the sudden realization that, well, life’s just too short.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sports or taking vacations. Everyone needs their interests, hobbies and various distractions. After all, going to the movies was virtually a religion during the darkest days of World War II.
But we have to be careful about falling prey to melodrama, reactionary flag-waving and facile proclamations. 9/11 was a day that took our collective breath away and made us sit up and take notice, but for better or worse, we all returned to our same old habits and tendencies. In that respect, the terrorists didn’t win. We did eventually go back to normalcy. What we shouldn’t do is raise the specter of 9/11 for the justification for everything we do or utilize its power as a means of self-pity or soapbox sermonizing. Worse yet, for monetary profit – I don’t want to ever see a 9/11 department store sale.
So would the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, the Floyd County Ramblers, Charley Patton or the Skillet Lickers have recorded songs about 9/11 if they were still with us? My guess is they probably would’ve, but with a great sense of compassion and carefulness about not coming off as exploiting this solemn moment in American history. They might’ve sung about the enormous loss of life, the individuals who perished and the heroes who attempted to rescue those who were endangered, the spouses and children left behind and forced to figure out how to somehow go on with their lives.
Of course, it’s important to remember. But 9/11 is more than just a date or an anniversary. It’s something in our DNA, our American fabric. And we don’t need any songs or archival images of burning buildings to remember that.