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.

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