A few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend with a far more cultivated musical taste than I could ever pretend to possess, I went down to Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park to hear Pete David and his band The Payroll Union perform at the Tramlines Festival. What I heard surprised me. Pete’s gothic Americana took his audience back to the nineteenth-century United States: of cities ravaged by cholera, of states ‘burnt over’ by the fires of religious revival, and of presidents who spoke of liberty while expanding an empire for slavery. Here were people, themes, and events that I’ve been teaching and writing about for the last decade brought to life in a very different medium to the scholarly prose I was accustomed to. When I spoke to Pete a few weeks later I realised why: we were often drawing ideas from the same books but doing very different things with what we found. Out of our conversation sprung a question – how does the medium through which we tell stories about the past matter? – and thanks to the support of the faculty’s Arts Enterprise fund and the assistance of a local filmmaker, Cathy Soreny, we’re exploring it by taking pre-Civil War Philadelphia as our common ground. In my case, I’m completing a book on the city in a turbulent period of its history; in Pete’s, an album. A much more prolific writer than me, Pete has already penned three songs for the project, and over the next few months we’ll be meeting regularly to discuss sources and ideas and to reflect on the creative process of turning ‘archives into narratives.’ Students with an interest in American history, music, and film might want to look out for a couple of paid internships on the project that we’ll be advertising early in the next academic year.
More American historians than let on, I suspect, harbour ambitions to write about music. Mike Foley, one of my colleagues at Sheffield is at work right now on a book about the Dead Kennedys, while Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor who made his name writing the nearest American equivalent to E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, moonlights as the ‘historian in residence’ in the virtual space of Bob Dylan’s website. But we’ve become so accustomed to distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture, or ‘proper history’ and its ‘popular’ distortions, that there’s still a suspicion of treating seriously popular music, whether as an object of academic inquiry or a way of representing the past. In the case of the former, it can seem frivolous when compared to weightier matters; in the case of the latter comes the nagging question of accuracy. Pete, as he freely admits, doesn’t have to footnote his songs.
Writers on historical film confront similar skepticism. Some – most prominent among them perhaps being Hayden White – have challenged the privileging of the written word as a way of representing history. But you don’t need to be a radical postmodernist to recognize that as long as we watch them with a skeptical eye, films like Lincoln can help us ‘to see the past’ in a manner that writing cannot. While I’m aware of the liberties Martin Scorsese took with his sources, watching Gangs of New York enabled me to imagine the Civil War-era city, and to conceive how it might have looked through the eyes of its citizens: a very different perspective to the one we’d get from the static snapshots of contemporary maps and photographs. But where film allows us to see can music make us feel? The Payroll Union certainly made me wonder. ‘The Anxious Seat’ on their first album, The Mule and the Elephant, prodded me to take the ecstatic, evangelical religion that swept over the United States in the 1820s and 1830s seriously in a way I’d never really done before in my own research, where I’ve tended to project my own agnosticism backwards onto people who, when I re-read their writings, were often intoxicated with religious faith. Hearing a song that captured the exhilaration of conversion conveyed a mood – a state of being – that leaden academic writing struggled to evoke.
This isn’t history ‘as it really was’, but it is one way (among others, some of which I couldn’t recommend for legal and medical reasons 1) of encouraging the kind of empathetic reconstruction that, whatever Michael Gove might say, is something all historians must do. Pete has a rare talent for it. Most of his songs are narrated in the first person, so we hear the voices of (among others) Mormon settlers fleeing persecution in Missouri, gentlemen dueling on the banks of the Hudson, and a lawyer lamenting the death of his wife. Not all of his subjects are sympathetic – there are murderous frontiersmen and canting founding fathers made to speak – but while I might take issue at points with his perspective, the characters who inhabit his songs are plausible, not least because he does his research. 2 Words and music combine to transplant the listener to a different place and time.
And this is what Pete’s hoping to do with Faith and Fear in Philadelphia. The songs he played from the project at the Arts Enterprise showcase in Sheffield on Tuesday deal with two of the great divides in the pre-Civil War era: the jarring gap between rich and poor and the violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics. ‘Paris of America’ offers a cartography of the city, mapping the ‘civilization’ of promenaders on an elegant boulevard again to the ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ who lurked in courts and alleys nearby; ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’ meanwhile is a eulogy for an eighteen-year-old brawler-turned-martyr killed in a riot incited by religious hatred. Pete is not reproducing the music of the period here, though Americana’s debt to folk traditions gives it deep historical roots, but the gothic melodrama of ‘Paris of America’ especially helped me to hear the nineteenth-century city, and to sense the passions and fears it evoked. A metropolis that had grown familiar to me over years of researching and writing about it once more felt new.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. He is currently working on the Faith and Fear in Philadelphia project with Pete David, a musician and song-writer of Sheffield-based Americana band The Payroll Union. You can hear more of Pete’s music here and read more about the historical inspiration for his songs on Pete’s blog.
Image: Pete David and Andrew Heath at the Arts Enterprise Showcase, 5th June 2013. ©Caroline Dodds Pennock
- One young scholar in the 1970s, Peter Novick records in his engaging account of professional history in the U.S., That Noble Dream, proposed a ‘psychadelic’ approach to enable ‘historians to project themselves back into the past. ↩
- One song has been put on hiatus after he discovered – contrary to the claims of at least one reputable historian – that the main figure was a creation of a nineteenth-century novelist! ↩