Ken Will Morton Mines Hartford Circus Fire Drama on ‘Little Miss 1565’

Photo by Andy Payne

In all of Hartford’s long, not always glorious history, one event stands out for the scope of its calamity: the circus fire of 1944 that resulted in nearly 170 deaths and hundreds of injured, many of them children. Naturally, a tragedy so fraught with drama has carried over into books, music and theater. Among them, author Stewart O’Nan wrote a carefully researched history, “The Circus Fire,” which inspired the folk singer Mark Erelli to write the song “Hartfordtown 1944.” Now singer and Connecticut native Ken Will Morton adds to the body of work about the disaster with a song that is nominally about one of the victims. (Listen to both songs below.)

“Little Miss 1565” was the coroner’s designation given to an unidentified young girl who died in the fire, which started during an afternoon performance by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944. For years, her body went unclaimed, until 1991, when she was identified — by no means definitively — as Eleanor Cook.

Morton offers an impressionistic account of the fire, singing in a swampy sandpaper drawl that he certainly didn’t pick up as a student at Manchester High School (he’s long since moved to Athens, Ga.). Over layers of guitar, including one that keens like a distant siren, Morton delivers fleeting images of the fire spreading and the panic that ensued as spectators sought to escape the flames engulfing the paraffin-coated big-top tent.

The singer takes some poetic license, singing that “the Great Wallenda from upon his wire” first spotted the fire (actually, it was said to be circus bandleader Merle Evans, though the Flying Wallendas were performing that day) and crediting the clown Emmett Kelly with running out of the tent with Little Miss 1565 in his arms. “Just as soon as they thought they could save her, her breath just slipped away,” Morton sings. There’s no evidence any of that happened, though a photograph of Kelly in clown makeup carrying a water bucket to help fight the fire ran in various newspapers and Life magazine.

“Little Miss 1965” is one of 19 songs, plus a hidden track, on Morton’s upcoming seventh album, “All’s Fair in Love & War.” He played all the instruments himself except for the drums, which consist throughout the album of loops he found online. It’s a clever enough conceit, but the canned drums lend a ponderous rigidity to “Little Miss 1965” that isn’t helped by Morton cramming too many syllables into a couple of lines and the occasionally out-of-phase double-tracked vocals that sound like someone’s having a conversation in the background. Then there’s that keening guitar, which becomes relentless by the end of the song.

It’s not Morton’s strongest tune, despite the rich subject matter. “Hartfordtown 1944” isn’t Erelli’s strongest, either — the gratuitous “-town” suffix is always vaguely troublesome — but the Boston singer does more with the material on the classic-style folk ballad from his 2006 album “Hope & Other Casualties.” (There’s also John & Mary’s tune “July 6,” from their 1991 album “Victory Gardens,” a song so mannered it sounds like a parody.)

Where Morton captures what must have been the chaos and claustrophobia inside the tent, Erelli builds a sense of impending catastrophe from outside it as he patiently sets the scene from the perspective of a kid who lives nearby and isn’t allowed to go. “I know the first time that I ever prayed/ Was when I saw that black smoke in the sky,” he sings, a line that raises chills and serves as a reminder that sometimes the long view is more revealing, and powerful, than being right up close.

LISTEN

“Little Miss 1565”

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