Country legend Charlie Louvin, who played at Schubas in December, returns to town with a gig Wednesday night at the Heartland Cafe. Louvin and his brother Ira are famous for the sweet sound of their vocal harmonies, but they sang some pretty dark songs–“Great Atomic Power,” for instance, is about a potential apocalypse, and “Knoxville Girl” is a story of murder at the singer’s own hands.

With that in mind, Louvin’s current label, Tompkins Square Records, is a fitting home for him; late last year it released a phenomenal three-CD box set devoted entirely to human death and suffering. People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938 is a survey of early American folk styles–country, old-timey, blues, gospel, Cajun–that consists entirely of tunes chronicling acts of violence and destruction. They’re broken down into three categories, one per disc: Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Man (and Woman, Too).

In the wake of the rerelease of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, it’s not uncommon for reissues like this to ignore genre boundaries. Erasing those relatively arbitrary lines makes it easier to apprehend the tropes, melodies, and forms that were most universal in the early days of American recorded music.

The superb liner notes, by 78 rpm archaeologist Hank Sapoznik, make a point of reminding us that the American public was bloodthirsty long before Grand Theft Auto. Artists churned out records about death because people bought them. Obviously murder ballads have been around for a long time–they were brought here by some of the earliest British settlers–but in America a new fascination with timely reportage created a whole new industry of “event songs” or “news ballads.” Singer-songwriter Andrew Jenkins would probably have Geraldo Riviera’s job if he were alive today, reporting on location from one sensational disaster after another. His 1929 song “The Alabama Flood” was written while rescue efforts were still underway after the flood of the Pea River on March 14: “The little town of Elba met its fate / With cries and screams and groans / The people fled their homes / They tried to leave that town . . . it was too late.”

The set also includes some genuine masterpieces, which transcend the quotidian details of the tragedies that inspired them. Mississippi bluesman Charlie Patton contributes songs about a 1927 flood along the Mississippi (“High Water Everywhere Pts. 1 & 2”) and the once costly scourge of the boll weevil (“Boll Weevil Blues”) that tap into larger truths about human nature and survival. There are other equally important artists represented–Son House, Clarence Ashley, Furry Lewis, the Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Memphis Minnie–but the real strength of this set is its breadth and historic value. It’s fascinating stuff–and, as if to prove Sapoznik’s point, the lovely booklet includes plenty of postdisaster photos and shots of caskets and corpses.

For this Saturday’s Record Store Day, a nationwide celebration honoring independent music stores, Tompkins Square is offering a copy of the set–autographed by Tom Waits, who wrote the introductory essay–as a contest prize. Chicagoans can enter at Reckless Records and Permanent Records.

Today’s playlist:

Television, Adventure (Elektra/Rhino)
Lichens, Omns (Kranky)
Jan Dukes de Grey, Mice and Rats in the Loft (Breathless)
Jason Kahn, Norbert Möslang & Günter Müller, Signal to Noise Vol. 3 (For 4 Ears)
Ramones, Too Tough to Die (Sire/Rhino)