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History is rife with omens. The problem is that their nature – good or bad – can only be determined with the benefit of hindsight. Would the monks of St Augustine’s Canterbury have been so confident of the sinister nature of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066 had they not been making the Bayeux Tapestry a decade after the Battle of Hastings? [1] I suspect not.

On a cold autumn night, the launch of the Faith and Fear in Philadelphia project – which combines historical research and music – is itself visited by portents. [2] Sheffield-based gothic-Americana band The Payroll Union are on stage. The audience is transfixed by the first song of their set, ‘Winter of ’41’, a mournful lament on the horrors suffered by the population of Philadelphia when a bitter cold front settled over the city in 1841. Amid the raucous frenzy of the song’s bleak conclusion, front-man Pete David slices through an E string. Seconds later, the projector screen behind the band flashes a warning – 7% battery remaining. Anticipating tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the audience awaits the third stroke of ill-fortune; but it never comes. [3]

Perhaps I am reading too much into the evening’s events. After all, omens have no truck with the insignificant. The collaboration of academics and artists to tell the story of 1840s’ Philadelphia is bold and adventurous, but is the project important enough to merit Fate’s notice?

Music and history play substantial parts in my life; I have a History degree and am married to an Aztec historian, and much of my time is devoted to the consumption, critique and warbled reproduction of a plethora of musical genres. Life without either would, frankly, be no life at all. It was not until I experienced The Payroll Union in 2011, however, that I had ever considered the prospect of a serious and studied fusion of the two. The band certainly looked authentic – sporting beards, suits, and the odd Derby hat – but it was their opening track ‘Chappaquiddick’ that shifted my thinking. Whilst my own smugness at thinking I was one of the few in the audience to understand the reference triggered an initial (albeit fragile) connection with the music, it was the substance of the song itself that reeled me in. [4] What I hadn’t expected was for the lyrics and the music to capture so vividly the panic, desperation and loneliness of that tragic night in the cold, dark waters of Nantucket Sound. Pete David is a true master of the storytelling craft; he picks individual voices from the past, specific threads used to highlight the broader tapestry of their time. Characters speak from beyond the grave in a contemporary and accessible manner. [5] 3

I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression, however, that listening to The Payroll Union sing about religion and violence in pre-Civil War Philadelphia will instantaneously convert them to the pursuit of greater knowledge about the period. Many will engage with the project only through their enjoyment of the performance. [6] But for those with a spark of interest in history and the creative process – the music, the lyrics, and the band have so much to offer. [7]

Since A-Level days I have remained faithful to the formative medieval period; for years I have resisted anything beyond the Peasants’ Revolt on the grounds that it is not so much history as ‘current affairs’. And yet I now have Brogan’s History of the USA sitting on my bedside cabinet. [8] After listening to the band’s music, and discussing it with Pete David and his academic co-conspirator Dr Andrew Heath, I want to understand what was happening in North America at this time which makes Philadelphia such a captivating case study. What was the source of the anxiety of the wealthy inhabitants of this city – this ‘Paris of America’ – at the behaviour of the working class “ruffians” on Bedford Street? [9] Why was the death of local youth George Shiffler such a rallying cry for Philadelphia Nativists, who rampaged through the streets, attacking Irish immigrants and burning down Catholic churches, intending to “light the sky”? [10] The Payroll Union’s body of work leads you back to the history, where historians like Andrew Heath will be your guide.

Faith and Fear in Philadelphia begs interesting questions about the role of music in exploring history. Should it be placed under the same scrutiny as, say, historical fiction or film? Do songs have the same impact on the public’s beliefs when narrating the past, if so is it enough to make a disclaimer by acknowledging simple inspiration drawn from past events, or should there be a responsibility for accuracy in what is articulated? [11]

So – is this project important? I believe so. It brings a fresh multi-disciplinary approach to the study of history. What does success look like? Well, for those of us who recently attended a meeting to discuss the project, we have already seen it. It is excitement at the possibilities. We know that people believe in the project, as it has received Arts Enterprise funding. Faith and Fear in Philadelphia has brought people from different backgrounds together, and we’re talking about the history and the music, and how to get the word out.

For all the seemingly ill omens prevalent at the launch of Faith and Fear in Philadelphia, recent signs are that the project has a bright future. After all, it’s always sunny in Philadelphia.[12]

Sheffield-based James Pennock is a history graduate and over-zealous music snob. He writes gig and album reviews under a consciously self-aggrandising pseudonym for Sloucher, and will do anything for a tenor. You can see all of James’s History Matters blogs here.

Images: Faith and Fear in Philadelphia launch, The Harley (2013) ©Nyasha Mangera-Lakew


[1] Harold II (1022 to 1066 AD) succeeded Edward the Confessor as King of Anglo-Saxon England in January 1066. According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “At that time, throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet, which some call ‘the long-haired star’: it first appeared… on 24 April, and shone every night for a week.” The Bayeux Tapestry leaves us under no illusion of what Halley’s Comet portended – it is shown in the scene immediately following Harold’s coronation, and foretells the fate of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England who would be dead within 7 months of the comet’s appearance. A bad omen for King Harold, though an equally good omen for Duke William II of Normandy.

[2] The Faith and Fear in Philadelphia project launch was held at The Harley on 21 October 2013. The Payroll Union were supported by David J. Roch (an extremely talented local singer/ songwriter whose music has received popular attention on both sides of the Atlantic) and The Gregory S. Davies Band (whose music is a diverse fusion of Americana, jazz and folk, and whose front-man is a Sheffield University history graduate currently working on his doctorate – they have had BBC Radio 2 airtime and are a band to watch over the coming years). The artwork associated with the project (and projected at the launch -the header photo shows a picture based on Philadelphia black abolitionist leader Robert Purvis) is by Sam Skillington. A good overview of the launch and the various strands of the wider project, which go beyond a fusion of history and music, and encompass a more diverse spectrum of the creative arts, can be found here – http://popatunes.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/the-payroll-union-faith-fear-in.html

[3] Typically in rock and roll, this would be the untimely yet satisfyingly extravagant death of the drummer. Thankfully, Ben is still with us.

[4] On 18 July 1969, US Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts with a passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, in his car. Kennedy drove the car off a bridge and into a tidal channel; he swam free and failed to report the incident until the next day, when Kopechne’s body and the car were recovered by the local authorities. Kennedy received a two month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. Teddy, the younger brother of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, failed to stand for Democratic nomination for the 1972 and 1976 Presidential elections, and many point to the incident at Chappaquiddick as the prime reason for this.

[5] Dr Andrew Heath makes a similar point, with more eloquence, in his own History Matters blog on the project (see http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/music-history-faith-fear-philadelphia/). Professor Helen Weinstein also helped me to see this more clearly in comments that she made during a recent panel on anniversaries (see http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/day-history-anniversaries-matter/), depicting the broadcasting media’s strategy for public engagement in history as focussing on connecting viewers and listeners with the stories of individuals to – coining a favourite personal development phrase – ‘make it real’, familiar, empathic, and hence relevant. Narrative is refined from the meta to the localised, in true postmodernist style.

[6] I should note that the band welcome new fans of all shapes and sizes. Appreciation of their music is the only requirement. Evangelical fervour is simply a ‘nice-to-have’.

[7] Many will have heard of The Fifth Beatle. Dr Andrew “Ting-a-Ling” Heath is currently the Fifth Unionista. If you listen closely you will hear his trademark rhythm triangle on a number of the band’s tracks.

[8]
Okay, so I haven’t actually read it yet. And there are other books on there too, at least one of which (Gunter Grass’s Dog Years) will not be reattempted in this lifetime. But it’s a clear sign of intent.

[9]
Paris of America is both a chapter from Dr Andrew Heath’s doctoral thesis on nineteenth century Philadelphia (The Manifest Destiny of Philadelphia: Imperialism, Republicanism, and the Remaking of a city and its People, 1837-1877, University of Pennsylvania, 2008) and also the name of The Payroll Union’s first song from the project. Pete David has a blog on the song and its historic background here: http://thepayrollunion.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/paris-of-america.html

[10]
Pete David provides further insight on what attracted him to focus on Philadelphia in this period in his History Matters blog:  http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/painting-history-music-historical-imagination/

[11]
See n.10.

[12]
Yeah. Pretty shameless.
Tags : American historyFaith and Fear in Philadelphiamusic and historynineteenth-century historyPhiladelphia historypublic history
James Pennock

The author James Pennock

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great post which I will be sharing around. What I loved was that you have really shown the potential of music as History. So often we rest on music as a handy illustration, to create a bit of interest, in what ‘really happened’, or perhaps we manage to understand that musical production and industry has its own history. Your blog takes this to a much more creative place, understanding music as a form of historical practice in and of itself.

    1. Thanks Lucy. I’ve tried to capture in the blog what Pete David and The Payroll Union have been doing for a number of years, which is to take a passion for history and explore it through the creative process of songwriting and performance. There’s artistic license taken, for sure, but never (from memory!) where sources and weight of academic argument suggests the contrary. Pete’s last blog post on this process (see http://thepayrollunion.blogspot.co.uk/) is fascinating, attempting to visualise the geography of the stories that his songs depict through the use of contemporary maps. The impact of this approach is also aided by the fact that the songs are remarkable, and the band are captivating when playing live (as noted in the blog, it was the music first and foremost that was my way ‘in’).

  2. Great post. Been listening to these for the past week since reading this and I am a fan! I suppose they come in the long tradition of musicians who, like many cultural icons, capture some element of the past and merge it with modern fashions. Very much looking backwards to go forward. Cecil Sharp and the Edwardian folk revival come to mind as well as what bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were doing in the 60s/ 70s. Now we have that odd mix of science fiction and an utopian pre-electronic Victorian age: steampunk – though I doubt if Payroll Union would ever subscribe to that label.

    1. Alex – glad you liked the article and listened to The Payroll Union! There is indeed a tradition of artists seeking inspiration from history, be it from stories, musical styles, or both. What is perhaps different here is the stricter adherence to historical ‘truth'(not necessarily the same thing as ‘fact’)…Pete has an interesting story of how he wrote a song for the project only to find that the character about whom he was writing – despite often being depicted as a real living man – was an urban legend; this lack of authenticity has seen said song laid to one side, irrespective of the musical merits of the track. I respect that…my own footnotes often discard such integrity for the sake of entertainment (I’ll leave you to work out which one I am referring to).

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