As a songwriter with a fascination for American history, I’m often in a quandary about how to balance my desire for authenticity with the need for drama. I remember the first song I wrote with a take on real-life events. ‘The Sacrifice‘ was inspired by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (the Salem Witchcraft Trials already filtered through an artist’s lens) and what excited me most was that the drama I was exploring referred back to something that had happened. Given the narrative form of my songs, though, revealing the dramatic tension has to be my first thought when I write. Happily it’s not always at the expense of the historical record.

Rich source material helps: it would be quite hard to make the Salem Trials sound boring. In the ten years since I wrote that song, I’ve written about Cuban revolutionaries in the Spanish American War, revival preachers of the Second Great Awakening, Mormons crossing the Mississippi, dueling politicians, Masonic conspiracies, even the financial crisis of the 1870s. All of history has a hook and I hope to exploit it without becoming the Mel Gibson of music. Crucially, though, I always want the themes I explore – religious intolerance, empire-building, the rise of democratic politics – to come through as clearly as the drama.

My current project comes out of a collaboration with a more conventional American historian, Andrew Heath, and was borne out of my desire to produce a body of work that is more concentrated in time and space than my previous releases. The setting is Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s, which affords me plenty of drama to work with.

Plagued by riots and disease, Philadelphia was ravaged by both fire and violence, but its citizens also sought to redefine it as a great metropolis, a rival to the great European capitals. ‘Paris of America’, the first song from the project, takes the perspective of a journalist touring Philadelphia, warning the city’s bourgeoisie of the violence and degradation that lurked nearby. The proximity of so-called dens of depravity to grand boulevards meant fear of an uprising haunted wealthy Philadelphians. As well as highlighting class tension, I wanted to mimic how poverty was portrayed. I am fascinated by the countless salacious accounts of poor districts during this time by journalists, missionaries, and novelists looking to horrify and thrill their audience. While condemning the residents for their ‘savagery’, they seem fascinated by the prostitution, domestic violence, and drunkenness they supposedly encountered. The voyeurism of the day’s sensationalist journalism reminds us that little has changed in the media’s exploitation of the poor.

To write on Philadelphia in the 1840s is to write on violence, and one of my new songs looks at the effects of the devastating riots of 1844 between the city’s Catholics and the anti-immigrant nativists. The spark of inspiration for this song was a broadside written in honour of a nativist, George Shiffler, who was shot, supposedly defending the American flag. Shiffler was quickly sanctified as a martyr to the Protestant cause, and his death was used as a call to arms to defend the city – and nation – from a hated religious minority.

In my writing, I am drawn to individual stories and to what perhaps is not speculated. To imagine the unseen, to explore what a person may have been thinking, is for me what brings colour to the subject and the song. ‘The House on the Hill’ imagines Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, on his deathbed, contemplating the legacy he leaves behind. Jefferson is a fascinating subject because he was a bag of contradictions. Slavery was abhorrent to him, but he owned two hundred slaves; he kept meticulous accounts of everything he spent, yet he never lived within his means and ended his life in debt; he was considered the voice of the ordinary man, but lived away from people in a glorious home built on a hill. I didn’t warm to Jefferson but I was drawn to him for the same reasons that I found him unsympathetic. His inability to come to terms with what he believed and how his life looked, paint an anguished and tragic figure and this – rather than the most influential president of the antebellum era – is the Jefferson I wanted to explore.

Pete David performs a solo version of ‘The House on the Hill’. More of The Payroll Union’s music is linked below and available via YouTube or to download.

In the song, it is the financial debt that Jefferson grapples with, yet it serves neatly as an exploration of the debt of slavery he inherited and continued. The “children at my feet” are those he fathered with his slave Sally Hemings and yet as he contemplates the factionalism that was bred from his time in office, his successors too were his squabbling children. At the time of his death and for some time after, different political factions fought over who were the true heirs of Jeffersonian Republicanism. The chorus line of “how they haunted me, they hounded me ‘til I was nothing” tells of how Jefferson was nearly prosecuted by his own countrymen for desertion when he fled his home during the British invasion of the Revolutionary War and also of his British debtors, the source of his hatred for the mother country.

Whether Jefferson was or wasn’t conflicted seems irrelevant to me. What’s important is that it isn’t hard to imagine he was conflicted. In this way, the song can be conflicted on his behalf. Of course, I’m unable really to know what Jefferson was feeling, and whether he was beset by any of these anxieties, but if I can add anything to the many words that have been written on such a familiar figure, it is to spark the imagination. Music can go beyond the factual, and bring to life the characters and currents of human emotion. It is rather like painting: the historical landscape gives us the time and place and the characters in the musical foreground encourage us to put ourselves in their shoes.

Pete David is 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 behind his songs on Pete’s blog. You can also find him on twitter @sneekypedro. Pete is currently working with Andrew Heath, Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, on the Faith and Fear in Philadelphia project which Andrew has blogged about here.

Image: The Payroll Union album launch at Club60, Sheffield (November 2012) ©Caroline Dodds Pennock

Tags : Americana musicArts Enterprisemusicmusic and historyPhiladelphia historyPre-Civil War Philadelphia
Pete David

The author Pete David


  1. Nice concept and a great way of bringing history to another medium.

    My favorite metal band is Sabaton (from Sweden). They too use history in their song writing. All their albums are about wars, battles and heroes from around the world. The themes range from the Swedish Empire to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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