Some scholars have written that ballads functioned as tabloid newspapers of their day, bringing news of sensational happenings to an illiterate populace. But news is ephemeral: it whets our appetite for different news tomorrow. A song commemorating a specific event, such as a burning city, is not much remembered after the city has been rebuilt. A song about a specific murder, though, can last long beyond the event, because the theme recurs over generations. Yesterday's False William is today's serial killer.
We most certainly wouldn't know this song about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 were it not for repertoire desperation by Charlie Poole (1892-1931) and The North Carolina Ramblers. Charlie's life is worth an entire book (Rambling Blues -- The Life & Songs of Charlie Poole, by Kinney Rorrer, 913 Vicar Rd., Danville, VA 24540), so I won't repeat any of it here. In 1929, the band was due in New York for their ninth recording session in four years. They had recorded over 90 songs, which would deplete the songbag of even prolific traditional musicians. Charlie or someone in the band found a 1905 songbook called Mowry's Songster, which had this Baltimore fire song, a re-write of an 1873 published song, The Boston Fire. The North Carolina Ramblers recorded it (now reissued on County CD-3508, Charlie Poole & North Carolina Ramblers, Vol. 2).
Massive urban fires are so rare nowadays that we don't think much about them. The London fire of 1666 burned more than 13,000 buildings, killing an unknown number of people, while the 1871 Chicago fire ruined 18,000 buildings and killed about 300. Very few people died in the Baltimore fire of February 7-9, 1904, but most of the commercial district and the harbor piers were destroyed. It started when one building caught fire and then exploded, spreading the fire to other buildings. While the firemen were trying to put those out, a 25 mph wind came in off the ocean, which spread the fire rapidly in a new direction. Fire engines from Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Wilmington arrived to help, but the non-standardized hose couplings didn't fit the hydrants. They tried to make a firebreak by blowing up buildings ahead of the fire, but that generated small wooden pieces that burned even more fiercely and accelerated the spreading. Finally, the firemen made a last stand at Jones Falls, a small river that runs into the harbor. They lined up 37 steam fire engines drawing water from the river and created a wall of water that stopped the fire. Baltimore rebuilt, using more fireproof materials.
The first line is a puzzler. Charlie did not follow the sheet music, which read, "It was only through a fault and by an error." The New Lost City Ramblers heard Charlie sing, "It was on a silver falls by a narrow." I'm printing Kinney Rorrer's version of the line. When I listen to Charlie, I can hear either the Kinney or the NLCR version, depending on which one I'm thinking of at the time. Kinney's great uncle, Posey Rorrer, fiddled for Charlie, so I'll give the benefit of the doubt to someone who lives in the area and is familiar with the dialect. Buy the CD, listen to it, decide for yourself.
1. It was going to a falls by a narrow
That I heard a cry I ever shall remember.
The fire sent and cast its burning embers
On another fated city of our land.
"Fire, fire," I heard the cry, from every breeze that passes by;
All the world was one sad cry of pity.
Strong men in anguish prayed, and calling loud to heaven for aid,
While the fire in ruin was layin' fair Baltimore, the beautiful city.
2. Amid an awful struggle of commotion,
The wind blew a gale from the ocean.
Brave firemen struggled with devotion,
But their efforts all proved in vain.