Sunday, 19 October 2014

We Know We're Being Conned

In a week or so, our latest album will be mixed, and we'll be starting to work towards a release date. Lots of work and money goes into it this stage - creating artwork, getting CDs designed and produced, arranging some kind of PR strategy (or paying someone else to), trying to arrange live dates and a possible tour around its release, and in our case, making sure we get all the merch ready to honour our Pledge campaign. It's a necessary though not particularly interesting period in the process. In fact, it's the antithesis of writing, playing and performing - all the bits of being a musician that you actually get a kick out of.

That's probably why my mind has started to wander towards the next record. This evening I was reading an excellent article on black conmen in antebellum New York, who practiced "burning": ripping off whites with counterfeit notes. The article was smart and well written, by an Australian chap called Shane something or other (I haven't got the article to hand), and he was developing a thesis about free African Americans and their relationship with money (I'm paraphrasing; it's a lot smarter than that). It got me thinking, firstly, that 'Burning' is a good song title, and secondly, that some of these characters are definitely worth writing about. Then, I realised that I've got a few song ideas about New York in the 1830s that I've been wanting to write about: The unsolved murder of Mary Rogers (The Beautiful Cigar Girl); the Moon Hoax; Sojourner Truth and her involvement with a religious cult in upstate New York; some Paine-ite newspaperman who I can't remember much about but sounded interesting. Oh, there are loads of them; stories I've wanted to write and develop but never got round to. Then I thought, what if they all converge on one day in the city,  the stories weaving in and out of one another, passing but never quite seeing each other. It's a bit of a stretch as a lot of these stories are 5 or 6 years apart, but what the hell, I've been anachronistic plenty before in my songs, I can pull it off again.

I also thought, I'd really love to write these lyrics down without playing a note, and then just taking them to the band and see what they do with the material. I've never really done that before and it kind of excites me as a new idea, and is bound to produce melodies I wouldn't otherwise find.

I read something last week that suggested that voters in this period, despite what historians have suggested,  were engaged with the political process, not through a deep understanding and passion for participatory democracy, but with a knowing irony that essentially they were being duped, conned by a wealthy political class. There's probably only a morsel of truth in it, but the idea is too good, and at its very genesis, I love the thought of imbuing the project with that wry fucking smile. We know we're being conned. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The City as a Whole

This past week, I've managed to put all else aside and have a dedicated 7 days of writing. Having cast off the chains of paid labour for a week, I've been holed up in my house trying to get to grips with the themes of this project we're involved with. 

If you're not already aware, we're working with the History Department at the University of Sheffield to produce an album on antebellum Philadelphia, with all its tales of violence and conflict. So far, I've written 6 or 7 songs for the project, and this week I was looking to add a few more, as well as pull together the loose strands I've had hanging around. Since I started writing on Philly about 6 months ago, I've had in my mind to produce a collection of songs that form some kind of narrative of the city in the 1840s and '50s. It's not hard to find the material - Philly was beset by a series of riots, from labour conflict to religious battles, as well as the continuous attacks on the free African American community. On top of these highly divisive issues that could be witnessed throughout the major cities of the North, there were also those rowdy and rambunctious boys who just liked a scrap with rival neighbourhood gangs. Lots to explore, and that's just scratching the surface. The many perspectives that I've found, from the violent ward boss to the despairing black community leader to the smug rich merchant, have given me so much to go on, and I'm still trying to figure how the the album will tell a whole and cohesive story. How do you exactly tell the story of a city with so many voices? 

It's hard to see the big picture when you're immersed in the detail, so I'll have to trust that this will take care of itself in the process of writing. However, one of the perspectives I've begun to enjoy writing from is that of the city itself, and this gives me a momentary shift from those individual stories. I've been inspired by a lot of the visual sources I've found, in particular the bird's eye views of the city (see right) that were drawn to show off it's growing stature as one of the great metropolitan cities of the world. One of the songs I started this week took an overhead view on a dark summer's night in Philadelphia, as the city comes alive. Fires are seen in the South, as rival fire companies fight from sheer boredom; drunkards and beggars dance in the streets and grog shops of Bedford; the illegal whiskeys stills of Kensington are fired up. We swoop down to see the detail before returning to the air like a bird, seeing that the city - that is, the centre where the commercial and residential wealth is situated - is circled, "like a ring around the city's sights." This method allows me to talk about the whole within one song, and give that sense that while one story is being told, a thousand others are only glimpsed at. I enjoy writing from this broad view, perhaps because it's relief from the more difficult task of writing a song of detail - which requires more nuance - but also because that broad view is helpful to the listener, and that somehow, these vaulted views of the city help us make sense of it. There's something reassuring about taking in the city from a height, seeing its many cogs turn in motion. 

This week has been useful in finding new ways of both bringing the subject to life, and how to best capture these characters. I find myself slipping into familiar traps (usually set by myself), where the subject becomes some grotesque vaudeville character. There's nothing wrong with this in itself - it's a device I've used well I think - but I am keen to avoid it for this project, if only to test myself. So, one of the things I've been doing is trying to get the material up onto my 'Philly Wall'. I've been adding to it over the last few months, and the centrepiece is this map of the city from 1842 (see left). On it, I've pinned sites of key events or buildings. Getting that geographical sense of the city has been helpful. For example, exploring the life of ward boss William McMullen, I can see that his home of Moyamensing in the south of the city was a far cry from Kensington in the north, where he went to fight with fellow Irish Catholics against the Nativists in the summer of 1844. At the same time, you can see the few blocks that separated the black community with the Irish Catholics, who fought bitterly throughout the 1840s. This has helped inform songs like California House, which I started this week. This is the story of a riot that took place in 1849, following the marriage of the black proprietor of a boarding/gambling house to an Irish Catholic girl. The bloody street warfare that ensued saw the burning of the house - after The Killers, the Irish Moyamensing street gang, rolled a burning barrel of tar into it and broke open the gas pipes - and thirty houses subsumed by the flames, as the gang fired shots at hose companies attempting to douse the flames. Seeing how close the communities were on the map brings home how these easily these conflicts could develop, and for me, makes them more real. 

I'll be writing a few more posts over the next week on the fruits of my labour and how the project is shaping up, as well as more on the work we've been doing with Optical Jukebox, the filmmakers who are documenting the process, so do check in again. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter @FaithFearPhilly.  

Monday, 27 May 2013

The burning of Pennsylvania Hall

Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built abolitionist meeting place, was opened on 14th May, 1838, in Philadelphia. Four days later, it was burned to the ground by an angry white mob. As seen in the picture below, thousands gathered to cheer and take part in its destruction, beating the fleeing African Americans. Note also the fire company's hose directed at the adjacent building. I've been looking into this story as a subject for a song and I came across this interesting account in the diary of the New York merchant, Philip Hone:

"Friday, May 18. - Riot in Philadelphia. Our neighbouring city of Philadelphia was disgraced yesterday by a riot which ended in the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, a place of meeting for the discussion of Abolition questions. A meeting was held in the forenoon and speeches were made, which exasperated the mob; another meeting was to have taken place in the evening, but it was prevented by the interference of the mayor. The mob, still farther instigated, it is said, by the wanton outrage of public opinion in the exhibition in the public streets of white men and women walking arm in arm with blacks, assembled in greater numbers in the evening, broke into the hall, destroyed everything they could find, and set fire to the building, which was entirely destroyed by ten o'clock. The excitement was so great that the mayor and other officers were unable to prevent the outrage, and some of the number (particularly Mr. Watmouth the sheriff) were dangerously wounded. A large proportion of the Abolitionists assembled in the hall were females, of whom several harangued the meeting, and were foremost in braving the excited populace. This dreadful subject gains importance every day, and reflecting men see in it the seeds of the destruction of our institutions."

Feeding into another of my songs ('Paris of America'), Hone visits Philadelphia for a wedding a month later and takes an interest in the Fairmount Water Works:

"The grounds, gardens fountains, pavilions, etc., are all in beautiful order, and appeared at this season, when nature is clothed in all her loveliest attire, and the day unusually bright, to greater advantage than I have ever seen them. The walks were filled with well dressed and well behaved people, who appeared to be of the better sort of bourgeoisie. Groups of young persons, male and female, were seated on the grass, and in the different pleasant pavilions, and the whole scene reminded me of the suburbs of a French city on a fine Sunday afternoon."

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Paris of America

Last night, we debuted two new songs at The Harley in Sheffield. Certainly one of them will most likely appear on our next album, which you may or may not have read in previous posts, will be an exploration of Philadelphia in the 1840s and 50s. The newest of these is still a work in progress and takes the perspective of Robert Purvis, a black abolitionist leader, who, following a riot in which houses and churches of African Americans were burned and destroyed, walks through the destruction. The riot had begun when the parade of the Negro Young Men's Vigilant Society was attacked, as they celebrated the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. Rioting lasted for two days before the militia stepped in.

The song itself isn't about the riot as such but more the aftermath and the impact it had on Purvis. After the riot, he wrote in a letter to white abolitionist Henry C. Wright, "Press, church, magistrates, clergymen and devils are against us... I am convinced of our utter and complete nothingness in public estimation." That sentiment of dejection struck me, and I wanted to in some way to portray someone who feels hated by so many people around him, completely separated from justice or any belief in fair treatment by the authorities. Purvis felt the stinging injustice of Philadelphia's treatment of its black population and the comment above feels like a point of desperation. As in so many of my songs, I'm imagining what someone might be feeling and one theme I explore is the idea of a how he might have imagined revenge. Purvis supported temperance societies and women's suffrage and undoubtedly never saw violence as a means to enfranchisement. Indeed, he appealed to the state legislators to turn back recent state laws that deprived blacks of the vote in his "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement." However, as with a lot of my songs, I'm looking for the unseen or undocumented possibilities. The character in this song, in his "darkest hour", imagines an "orgy of violence" as he torches "the city that scorns him." The opposition that Purvis faced in his attempt to restore the rights of the black population was in some way informed by a fear of a black uprising, following Nat Turner's violent slave rebellion in 1831, which panicked the white population throughout the country.

'Paris of America', the more complete of the two new songs, looks at the bourgeois fear of an uprising from the city's violent and "savage" poor. Characterised as such by both the wealthy and the missionary portions of the city, plans to beautify the city with boulevards and fountains were one way of civilising what they saw as a degraded underclass. Consolidation of the city and its suburbs in 1854 also brought with it a police force with greater powers in an attempt to bring this violent period to a close. As in other growing urban populations, dramatised accounts of violence gratuitously sensationalised the participants and it is this perspective the song takes. The narrator acts somewhat like a tour guide taking a gentleman and his lady through the "slum" area of Bedford (which was grotesquely characterised in the picture above by the Bedford Street Mission), warning them of the dark unseen underbelly, "just around the corner", as Bedford Street was indeed just a few blocks from the grand Broad Street.

As many of the paintings of sketches of Philadelphia around this period were more often intended as a postcard to promote a grand and sophisticated metropolis (see the painting to the left of Chestnut St), I thought it would be interesting to recreate sketches of streets like Bedford in a more realistic way, if that is possible, and it's something I'm looking into for our project. For the time being, these are two of the "hooks" of Philadelphia I've found and managed to create a couple of different perspectives from. In terms of giving a broad view of Philadelphia life, I'm hoping to continue writing about the distinctive cast of characters that make up this heterogeneous urban metropolis. It's certainly what makes the city such a fascinating subject.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Faith & Fear In Philadelphia

Last summer, I had the good fortune to get to know some historians at the University of Sheffield. No doubt intrigued that we were writing songs on 19th Century American characters and events, they asked me, over a beer or two, if we would be interested in doing a project with the History Department. I said yes, and we started planning what that would entail. At the end of January, Andrew Heath, lecturer in American history and our partner for the project, submitted a bid to a public engagement fund called the Arts Enterprise based within the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at the University. A couple of weeks later, we were told our bid had been successful and our project would be funded in full.

So what exactly is our project?

Before we went into the studio to record our first album, I already had in mind a loose idea for our second record. The Mule & The Elephant was a collection of songs written over a few years; some written three years before, some a couple of weeks old. Though I think they sit together well on the album, the songs travel through time and space and this creates a particular effect. The album moves geographically from the Erie Canal to Oregon; crossing the Mississippi with the Mormons and holed up with Thomas Jefferson on his death bed in Monticello. Crossing the continent back and forth, as an exploration of the nation's ambitions, suitably frames the story. The grand themes required that 'big picture' and this is seen in the stories that we explore too. As our liner notes illuminate, moving "from Presidents to railroad tramps" emphasises the rapid change occurring in the nation as industrialisation changed forever the lives of working people and the political divisions became more pronounced. Eventually, after the mania of a religious revival and the persecution of a growing sect and the drownings and poverty and political vanity, we can hopefully stand back and say it makes some kind of sense.

It was from this frenetic state that I was looking to find a home to settle in for a while. I wanted one place for  my next collection of songs. I wanted them to be concentrated, not just in the absorption of a locale but within a close period of time too; for them to be have a cohesion that was reflective of an intense period of songwriting. I spoke to Andrew about this and he eventually convinced me Philadelphia had the requisite components for the subject of an interesting album.

He's right, too. Like other growing urban spaces in the US, Philadelphia's experience of industrialisation created a number of unsettling anxieties in its populace. Whilst revivalism had stretched to the city, most notably manifested in the preaching of ministers like Albert Barnes, the dominant strain of Protestantism became preoccupied with anti-Catholicism, which culminated in one of the city's most violent riots in 1844. This was seized on by the newly formed Native American Party, who stoked the fires of anti-immigrant sentiment. Ironically, this dissipated after the influx of Irish immigration from 1848 onwards. For African Americans, the city of brotherly love was a popular destination point for runaway slaves and free blacks. Although a black upper class developed with its own institutions of education and benevolence, quality of life deteriorated dramatically for the vast majority during the years after 1838, when free blacks lost their right to vote. An increased population did nothing for the cause of African Americans as they lost their jobs to immigrant Germans and Irish, and hostility towards them caused one visiting English Quaker to comment that "Philadelphia appears to be the metropolis of this odious prejudice and that there is probably no city in the known world where dislike, amounting to hatred towards the coloured population prevails more than in the city of brotherly love!" Such was their desperate plight, black leader Robert Purvis became so downhearted as to observe that "press, church, magistrates, clergymen and devils are against us... I am convinced of our utter and complete nothingness in public estimation." Violence followed blacks in every public arena, such as when the Negro Young Men's Vigilant Association paraded to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. Beatings, lootings and the destruction of homes were commonplace for the African American in Philadelphia during the 1840s.
These strains of violence and religion are concurrent themes in antebellum Philadelphia and are what drew me to the city. Our project then, will be an exploration of this changing metropolis and how it emerged from this period of turmoil. A collection of songs will come out of this research and will form our second album, though the recorded output is just one element of this project. We're also working with film-makers Optical Jukebox, who will chart the process of the project and bring to life some of the themes in a short film. We'll be holding a series of events throughout the next year and a half, working with Sensoria, discussing history as a subject of music and engaging in debates on urbanism and the common issues that cities face, not least our own city of Sheffield.

For my own part, the project begins now, as I delve in Philadelphia's past and attempt to bring about a narrative that can be interesting, exciting and provocative. One of the (semi) completed songs that we have been playing in rehearsal has the tentative title, 'Paris of America'. This, in one way, is close to the end of the story. The city's patricians theorised on how to civilise the poor of their violence and depravity. Build parks, fountains, boulevards and the regenerative power of this new environment will transform, it was suggested. This bourgeois fear of the violent underclass, of even a potential uprising against the elite, was real and tangible. Like many of our contemporary public debates, it is another question gone unanswered and one that has been with us throughout history: what are we to do with the poor? It isn't hard to to think back to a year and half ago, when London was burning, and to remember both the inane and the insightful answers to this question. History continues to remind us of our collective amnesia.

Credit must go to Andrew Heath, whose research is informing the project and much of the detail about Philadelphia in the post above, as well as Elizabeth M. Geffen's chapter 'Industrial Development and Social Crisis 1841-1854' in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History, from where I found the quotes.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Thomas P. Cope

I've been dipping into the diary of Thomas P. Cope, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th Century. His observations are fascinating and like many letters of the time, can be beautifully poetic. He speaks a lot of his business, the weather, his ailments but also of contemporary events. This evening I read this entry from September 22nd, 1800 and although I'm unlikely to write a song out of it, I felt the need to share it.
"A conspiracy of the negroes has been detected at Richmond. Several of the unhappy wretches have been executed & others are expected to suffer the same fate. So long as seven thousand fellow beings are held in chains in these United States, their cruel & hardened oppressors may look for plots, conspiracies & insurrections. Nature revolts at the idea of bondage in any shape, but when that bondage is attended with other circumstances of barbarity such as tearing a fond husband from the arms of an affectionate wife & forcing the smiling babe from the breast of a tender hearted mother, of severing whole families & cutting asunder all the dearest ties of humanity, of dragging those innocent & hapless victims into a far and distant country, never, never to return, but to endure every species of heart rending torture under the galling yoke of a never ending slavery, except by the welcome interposition of death; surely those forgers of fetters, these tyrants of their species, are not to expect from men, formed, like themselves, for the sweet enjoyments of liberty, a tame and unresisting submission to all their deeds of merciless injustice. I would not be a dealer in flesh for all the riches of Indastan; nor a master of slaves for the fairest portion of my country. When I contemplate the nature of man, his restless spirit & daring efforts to regain that state of freedom of which he is wantonly deprived by his fellow man, I think I can see, in the sullen temper & discontented acts of the negroes in the southern states, a gathering storm, which may one day burst forth & overwhelm the oppressor & the oppressed in one general indistinguishable ruin."

Monday, 17 December 2012

Corlears Hook

With the build-up to our album launch in January and our tour in February, I must admit that I have been a little distracted from my main objective - to write songs. However, I was recently compelled to write something on a story I came across in a book on artisan organisation in New York City during the early republic. The story was brief - only a few lines - and was about a boy who had run away from his sick parent. As with a number of other songs I've written, this unfinished tale got me wondering what became of him.

All we know, from the account by Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, is that the boy had absconded from his parent, who was an invalid at the New York Alms House. Ely, who in 1812 was chaplain of the Alms House, was doing his rounds through the city. Asking after the missing boy, he was told to visit a cobbler living in one of the city's many cellar dwellings. Here, Ely found the boy, alongside a mournful cobbler and his family. He had kept the boy for a week but could no longer do so, "because he was too small to sit on the bench of the profession." Ely took the boy back with him. The cobbler, in justification said, "he cannot earn anything yet." The unnamed tradesman was left with a stark choice: a sentimental gesture towards one of the city's many destitute children, or feed his family. This incident was set against a backdrop of huge upheaval for the city's trades, particularly the 'small masters', who in the wake of the "commercialization of trade" from New York's expanding economy (soon to be the country's leading port city), were left clinging to a dying tradition.

(Incidentally, Ely features in one of my earlier songs, Julia Died of Cholera, when he comes up against congressman Richard Johnson, who fought for Sunday mail deliveries to remain in place, despite numerous petitions from Christian preachers like Ely who saw it as a violation of the Sabbath. Wonderfully, Johnson said, "Stop [the mail] one day in seven, and you retard one seventh of the advancement of our country.")

Corlears Hook, named Crown Point, during the British occupation of the city during the Revolution

But what of the boy? Born into poverty, his options were limited. It is possible that he would have returned again to the Alms House, but more likely, given the boy's independent spirit, he could just as easily ended up looking for work in the rough and lively area of Corlear's Hook (beyond what is now the Lower East Side), perhaps Walnut Street, with "its grogshops, ballrooms, and bawdy houses, enticing young mechanics, sailors and drifters." Perhaps he became the young boy employed by a baker to sell cakes and pies in the street, who was caught spending the profits to "have connection" with a young streetwalker. Whilst ministries attempted to stem the tide of depravity as they saw it, the residents enjoyed numerous forms of recreation: cockfighting, bull-baiting, alongside shows from travelling musicians, daredevils and acrobats. Celebrations such as these - including heavy drinking and gambling - provided ample relief from a hard day's work. Our young man initially returns then to the cobbler who housed him briefly, only to find him no longer there, having moved his family to the western New York, to tramp, to find more work.

What happens next I'm not entirely sure. In what could become an epic, Flashman-style tale of travel and adventure, I'm both excited and wary of this potentially picaresque tale. I see our adventurer travelling throughout  New York, helping build the Erie Canal, listening to Charles Finney preach, meeting Sojourner Truth, Martin Van Buren, Joseph Smith, shaping events unwittingly.  

For now, he remains in Corlears Hook, and so does the song.

Quotes are taken from Chants Democratic by Sean Wilentz.