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.

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