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The Sounds of Disaster

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"While the song plays, we believe these dry bones can live."
-- Tom Waits in his introduction to "People Take Warning!" box set



Just off Route 6 in rural Nelson County, tucked away in a yellow 19th-century farmhouse, Christopher King sits surrounded by the past.

At age 36, King is one of the youngest historical preservationists of old-time American music (early-20th-century folk, country and blues), one of a small cadre of international collectors of rare 78 rpm records that sound like ghosts crackling across time.

In a photo-adorned backroom studio, more than 6,000 antique records stand in neat rows of identical brown dust jackets. Above them on a shelf, sandwiched between his acclaimed CD reissue box sets, sits his own golden Grammy. King won the Best Historical Album Grammy Award in 2003 as a sound engineer — restoring, or "getting the most sound" out of antique records — for the Charley Patton box set, "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues." He was nominated again in 2006 for a Charlie Poole box set ("You Ain't Talkin' to Me") and in 2007 ("Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows").

But his streak may not end there. King's latest three-disc box set, the handsomely packaged "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938" (Tompkins Square Records) is a wonderful compilation of its kind, as well as his most personal project to date. Even its cover, a painting of the sinking of the Titanic by Virginia Commonwealth University graduate Matt Greenway, resonates with King — it came to him in a dream.

"I looked at my collection and thought, Man, I have a lot of records about disasters and murders," he says. "Was it something subconscious driving me, or were these the only things around at the time? … What is it that makes this type of art form disappear? And what do we gain from it and what have we lost from it?"

King, whose close-cropped hair and vintage glasses give him a decidedly '50s look, has been shopping for antiques — or "junking" — since he was a kid growing up in Hot Springs. His father was also an obsessive music collector and traveled door to door teaching music throughout the Allegheny Highlands, often taking old household records as payment. "He gave me my first 78, the Skillet Lickers' 'Wreck of Old 97,' which is included on this project," King says. (The historic train wreck also took place just down the road toward Danville.) "My father always wanted me to be involved with music somehow."

The idea for his current compilation began 15 years ago when King was studying philosophy at Radford. He was fascinated by the secret history of these songs, the tabloids of their day, with performers often having better luck selling more broadsides (one-page song sheets) if they wrote songs about murder in the first person. "If it bleeds, it leads" appears to be an old formula.

After he landed a job with local label Rebel Records and received numerous accolades for his remastering work, co-producer Hank Sapoznik urged him to contact Tompkins Square Records in New York about his longstanding idea.

"I've always loved historical packages and this one was so conceptually rich," says Josh Rosenthal, owner of Tompkins Square. After the initial pressing of 5,000 copies sells, Rosenthal says, the company may repackage a slimmer version of King's odes to misfortune.

Even though it involves floods, famines, train wrecks, murders and diseases, the music is the real joy here. The set is broken into themed discs: "Man v. Machine," "Man v. Nature" and "Man v. Man (and Woman Too!)," with each song sequenced in an interesting fashion. Among the 70 tracks, there are several songs about the Titanic, such as the dirge-like "El Mole Rachmim (Für Titanik)," sung in Yiddish. Another tune, "Henry Clay Beattie," tells the story of a 1911 Richmond murder, where Beattie shot his wife and was later executed. Hypnotic songs such as "Naomi Wise" by Clarence Ashley feature crystal-clear banjo and surprising vocal resonance — a tribute to King's skill. When he's remastering, everything he does is a physical, analog process, meaning he only transfers the cleaned-up mix to digital tape as the final step.

King was on the selection committee for the National Folk Festival's inaugural year in Richmond and would like to be involved with the Richmond Folk Fest. He acknowledges that the recent festival offered the weakest lineup yet.

"If you keep a rigorous definition of what constitutes folk, you're not going to have it eventually," he says. "If the festival in Richmond is going to be successful it's going to need balance and compromise between the well-known and the obscure acts, like Bangor, Maine," one of the few towns able to keep its folk festival going after the National Folk Festival moved on.

Who's the first person he would ask to perform? "I would call Tom [Waits]."

King is a busy guy. He's waiting on legendary critic Greil Marcus to talk to him for Interview magazine, and also has stories lined up with the Washington Post, Paste, No Depression, even Playboy. Before I leave, however, King indulges me by playing one of the most haunting and emotionally powerful records ever made: Geechie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues," featured in the acclaimed documentary about cartoonist and fellow record collector Robert Crumb, whom King knows well from auctions.

"Mine's pretty beat-up, probably a G-minus [grade]," King says. But it's also one of only three copies known to exist in the world. S



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