Thursday, October 25, 2018

THROWBACK THURSDAY: A Christmas Song Better Suited for Halloween

Lawson family portrait, taken about a week before Charlie killed all but one of them.

On Christmas Day, 1929, a western North Carolina tobacco farmer named Charlie Lawson woke up, engaged in some father-and-son bonding in the form of some varmint hunting.

Then when son Arthur went into town to buy more ammunition, Charlie went back to his house and shot and killed his wife and his six youngest children. Before Arthur got back. Charlie had gone back to the woods and killed himself.

It's that most wonderful time of the year ...

The Lawson family massacre was discussed in a recent episode of the true crime / comedy podcast My Favorite Murder -- in their typically irreverent and hilarious fashion. To the credit of co-hosts  Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, they credit my favorite true-crime podcast, Criminal with Phoebe Judge, which covered this bloody Xmas massacre a few years ago.

I'm not going to go into the gruesome details of the crime. Listen to Karen & Georgia and / or Phoebe for that. (Plus it's all over Google. Try THIS for starters.)

The reason I'm posting about the killings -- and a big reason people are still talking about it after nearly 90 years -- is because of a song.

Just months after the killings. singer Walter "Kid" Smith and fiddler Posey Rorer, in a group called The Carolina Buddies, recorded a hillbilly waltz they'd basically ripped from the headlines. And this is it:

Never mind that Karen & Georgia poked vicious fun at the recording, the song was a big hit for Columbia Records. And through the years, all sorts of folk, country and bluegrass artists have kept it alive. Here's a version by The Stanley Brothers.

Fast forward to the turn of this century and Dave Alvin covered it -- using the original lyrics but a different melody, on his Public Domain album. Alvin talked about the song with author Paul Slade:

 "Most murder ballads tend to be about one person killing another, or maybe one person killing two other people. In this case, it's a whole family. There's usually an innocent in a murder ballad, but this was an innocent family. And there's little justification given for it. It's left to the listener to decide. Was it economics? Was it insanity? Why did this guy kill his family? So that mystery gives it some power. 

"It's the murder of innocent children, which is pretty intense. And then it has that final verse, which is kind of sentimentally sweet but at the same time gives the whole scene some kind of redemption." 

Here's Dave's version.

This more one is by an Ohio band called Sport Fishing USA from their 2012 album Live at the Pool. The words and music are different but the story basically is the same.

Finally here's the spooked-out version Phoebe used on Criminal. It's by Elephant Micah (aka  Joseph O'Connel)l, a singer/songwriter from Indiana.

"They all were buried in a crowded grave / while the angels watched above /
"Come home, come home, my little ones / to a land of peace and love". 

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