Setting a Tragedy to Music

November 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Ohio Prison Fire

Carlotte & Bob Miller sang it "best"

On April 21, 1930 – Easter Monday – the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, was the site of the nation’s worst prison fire.  Many of the 322 inmates who perished died in their cells, “trapped like birds in a cage.”  Within three days, C[h]arlotte and Bob Miller had recorded the mawkish ballad, “Ohio Prison Fire.”  What sets this recording apart from the “competition” (which will be discussed in a later post) is Charlotte’s tearful dialogue with a prison official as she is in the process of identifying the charred remains of her son: “O, bodies, bodies, bodies.  I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it!”  Unfortunately, she sounds a lot like the wife in Hudson & Landry’s “Frontier Christmas” comedy sketch.  The same recording was released on a variety of labels (Grey Gull, VanDyke, Radiex, Champion, Okeh) and under several different names (Carlotte & Bob Miller, Miller & Miller, B&C Barnes).  Recently, it was included in the 3 -CD box set People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs: 1913-1938 (available wherever “good” music is sold).

Recording artists weren’t the only ones quick to capitalize on the fire at the penitentiary, however.  Within 21 hours, New York moviegoers, 600 miles away, were able to watch Pathe newsreel footage of the disaster.  As the August, 1930 issue of Popular Science magazine reported: “The theater patrons not only see the harrowing sights; they also hear the shrieking of the prison siren, the hissing as water hits flames, the howling of desperate prisoners, the crackling of burning logs, the thud of falling beams, the commands of Army officers and jail officials. More than that, they hear a brief talkie lecture by an expert on prison conditions, explaining the causes of the tragedy and suggesting means of preventing its recurrence.”

By the way, the warden of the Ohio Penitentiary admitted he didn’t have a particular plan for dealing with such emergencies.  He simply expected his staff to use “common sense.”

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