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.  

1 comment:

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