Lord Executor’s 1938 calypso gem “Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard” is a wonderful example of a genre that you might think no longer exists--songs about local news. The song not only relates the news, but comments on it quite astutely, putting the “hideous discovery” in perspective by comparing it to other Christmas-time tragedies.
Way back then, it was quite common to sing songs like these, which would usually combine an account of what happened recently around one’s hometown or state with some modest editorializing, usually without first-person narration. I find the authenticity of these songs tremendously appealing--they tell the truth about real events happening to real people without the solipsism and self-pity of so many autobiographical songs. Whether or not they exploit the deaths and tragedies of others for commercial gain is another matter entirely.
Perhaps the most famous example is a song composed in 1899, “Frankie and Johnny.” (There are hundreds of versions, but the most mind-blowing has to be Lonnie Donegan’s, which is linked here.) Bill Dooley, a St. Louis barroom bard, wrote this about a murder that took place there the night before; it became immensely popular almost immediately. In 1933, Mae West made a movie based on the song, She Done Him Wrong; Frankie Baker, who was still alive and well, sued the Hollywood studio for defamation (she lost).
While “Frankie and Johnny” is straight news, without editorial content, Uncle Dave Macon outweighs the news with editorializing in his 1930 “Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train,” the only song I’ve ever heard about a state budget. Yazoo records put out a couple of terrific CDs of this sort of stuff entitled Hard Times Come Again No More: Early American Rural Songs of Hard Times and Harships (vols 1 & 2).
Another great example is Dorsey Dixon’s “The School House Fire” (here recorded with his brother Howard in 1937). On the evening of May 17, 1923, the children of the Cleveland School in Sandy Hill, South Carolina were giving a performance of Topsy Turvy to an audience of 400, when a lamp hanging over the stage fell, spilling burning oil everywhere. Twenty-nine adults and 48 children died. Even though Dixon didn’t write the song until six years later, it still sounded like local news. I took this song from a wonderful Library of Congress LP entitled Songs of Death & Tragedy, and it includes two other great examples of local news songs, Ernest V. Stoneman’s version of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” about a 1903 railroad accident, and George Harter’s version of the “Mountain Meadows Massacre,” about the 1857 massacre of the Fancher party, a group of Southern emigrants, by Mormons and Indians in Utah. Both these songs were apparently written by people intimately familiar with the incidents, and shortly after they occurred.
More familiar examples might include Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes,” and any number of Woody Guthrie songs.
But do people still sing songs about the local news?
In fact, the genre is still kicking. Narcocorridos, as Elijah Wald explains in his excellent book of that name, are Mexican songs that often take local headlines about gangsters and drug-related killings and turn them into fascinating songs. In fact, corridos often function as regional newspapers for rural Mexicans. Here’s one example, taken from the sadly out-of-print CD companion to the book, Corridos y narcocorridos: “Masacre en El Charco” by Los Pajaritos del Sur, a song about the massacre of a group of peasants by government troops in 1998. The CD also includes a great song about the Rodney King beating, but that’s national news . . .
In English, though, there really are not many local news songs anymore, especially outside the folk-music tradition. You’d think hip hop would have plenty of them, but, as Chicago DJ J.P. Chill explained to me, “Anything like narcocorridos wouldn’t be appreciated in hip hop. It would be called ‘dry snitching,’ and snitching of any kind is a very bad thing.” Moreover, it’s awfully hard to find a hip hop song that’s not first-person.
If any of you know about good local news songs from the rock era and beyond, please let me know and maybe I’ll post them soon. But remember--they have to be truth, not fiction.