Sunday, April 17, 2011

Drunk Driving Tragedies: In Song and Photograph

Hi folks -- an incredible contribution by Ed Garten. I will try to insert song lyrics lter today, as I had difficulty with spacing in copying from email to blog site.

DRUNK DRIVING TRAGEDIES: IN SONG AND PHOTOGRAPH As a young boy and then as a teen, the connections between driving and the use of alcohol were deeply impressed on my mind. My grandfather Carlos Garten, who operated Garten Motors Ford/Mercury in the small town of Hinton, West Virginia from 1945 through the early 1960s, had the only wrecker service in the country. Accordingly, nearly every car accident, both minor and tragic, typically was met first by the ambulance and then by Grandfather's Ford F-350 wrecker truck. My father, Johnny Garten, was the wreaker driver for several years and sometimes would invite me to ride with him when called to the scene of an accident -- a car driven into the river, a car wrapped around a telephone pole, or several cars having met head-on to where one can could not be distinguished from the other what with the intertwined twisted metal. I can recall telephone calls at our home late at night or early in the morning with the dispatcher saying: "Johnny, there's been a bad wreck up on Route 7 just outside of Forest Hill. Get here as fast you you can. Best not to bring Eddie with you this time, its real bad." Several times the wreaks were so horrible and with deaths that my father would stop the wreaker about 500 yards from the accident scene and tell me to sit off to the side of the road and wait for him and he'd pick me up a bit later. Clearly he didn't want me to see the tragedy, the blood, and the death scene. Sometimes on Saturdays while visiting grandfather's dealership I'd sneak behind the shop and look at the car wreaks that had been pulled in from a previous Friday or Saturday night. Certainly the favorite two nights for drinkin' for hillbilly boys. Many times I'd peer into broken windows and see liquor bottles or beer cans on the floor. Other times I'd pull a driver's side door open and see a bloody dried seat. On other occasions I'd silently look at steering wheel columns that had clearly pierced a human body or a broken windshield that had met with an unfortunate head. Youthful curiousity, perhaps, but images that still play on my mind over 50 years later. Tragically, so many of these car crashes had involved alcohol. Why are we often so fascinated with the scene of such tragic accidents? Why do we try to avert our eyes when passing such horrible accidents on the highway, yet turn just before passing to catch a glimpse of the destruction? As John Heitmann knows I have a "coffee table" book (for lack of a better name in the case of this book) whose title is "Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories" by Mel Kilpatrick (Taschen, 1974). This picture book is not an easy one to spend even a few minutes with as all of the photos are of car accidents many of which have involved drunk driving. The phototographer focused on death -- violent death in small town America of the late 1940s and early 1950s. When night fell, he tuned in the crackling police radio band, always ready to rush to the scene of yet another bloody drama with his photographic equipment. Kilpatrick documented these tragedies and produced several thousand horrific photos in black and white But above all he sought out traffic accidents and their victims, who paid for America's post-war cult of the automobile and speed with their lives. Before seat belts and before air bags, Kilpatrick graphically proved why alcohol and driving don't mix. Kilpatrick's photos, unearthed in his darkroom in Anaheim, California, 35 years after his death, are ones that even a strong person can only stare at for so long. Repeat after me: Alcohol and driving motor vehicles don't mix. Recently I was wondering about the many "car crash" songs that have appeared over the years on record. Wikipedia lists a large number of them some dating back to the mid-50s with the song titled simply as "The Death of James Dean." But then I wondered: What might have been the very first "drunk driving car crash" popular song? (Not that this genre of song is popular, mind you). My own research, however, suggests that perhaps the first such song was "Wreck on the Highway" by Dorsey Dixon in 1938. The song became so popular, especially in the rural South, that its lyrics became a US Army basic training chant for soldiers stationed in the South. Dixon's lyrics are haunting: "Whiskey and blood ran together, but I didn't hear nobody pray." The Wreck on the Highway Audio File (MP3 file, ca. 2.9MB, 3:09 min.)

Dorsey Murdock Dixon (14 Oct. 1897-18 Apr. 1968), millworker, songwriter, and country musician, was born into a family of Darlington, S.C., factory workers. His father, William McQuiller Dixon (1875–1939), was a steam engine operator in the Darlington Cotton Manufacturing Company whose seven children followed him into the mill. Dorsey left school after the fourth grade and began working in the Darlington mill when he was twelve. He learned traditional and sentimental songs from his family and neighbors, who would gather at the Dixon house for music making. A local schoolteacher gave him violin lessons, and by the age of fourteen he had taught himself to play the guitar. A disastrous fire in a Cleveland, S.C., school-house in 1923 had lingered in Dixon's memory, and in 1929 he expressed his reaction in a poem. His mother and his brother Howard noted that the words could be set to the popular tune, "Life's Railway to Heaven." Encouraged by their enthusiasm, Dorsey began to compose in earnest, developing a pattern he would follow all his life. His first-hand experiences were cast into poetry and set to traditional and traditionally inspired tunes. His subject matter was overwhelmingly drawn from his religious speculations on local tragedies. A song Dixon had composed on a fatal car accident in East Rockingham, which the brothers recorded in 1938 as "I Didn't Hear Anybody Pray," was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1942 as "Wreck on the Highway." It is unclear where Acuff had learned the song, but he chose to copyright it under his own name. "Wreck on the Highway" quickly became a country music standard and, still today, one will occasionally hear old time country musicians playing it for their audiences at bluegrass festivals. If an earlier "drunk driving, car wreak tragedy" song exists I'd certainly like to know about it, but for now let's assume that this haunting song may have been the first to bring the tragedy of drinking and driving to the attention of a wider public. Again, don't drink and drive, or you may end up in the lyrics of a song.

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