Faith and Fear in Philadelphia

Last night I went to an absolutely brilliant event called ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ which was held at Sheffield’s lovely little art deco Library Theatre. Shamefully, I had never been there before, but it’s a wonderful venue which feels intimate yet has plenty of space for an audience of about 250. It was part of the excellent series of ‘In The City’ events, managed by my friend and former colleague, Amy Ryall, from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise team and organised by graduate intern, Nick Potter.

The month-long series of events is all about celebrating interesting and usually quirky collaborations between academics and others (I am not going to use the term ‘non-academics’), and engaging the public with these ‘non-traditional’ creative research projects. Public engagement is of course a big buzz word within universities (and many other institutions), at danger of just being another tick box exercise for the REF or for funders, but it strikes me that Sheffield’s approach is a really dynamic and creative one, in which risks are taken, projects are often shared in their incomplete and raw stages as processes rather than products, and playful and fun ways of doing new things are encouraged. It feels really fresh and as though these are projects that really matter.

So last night’s event ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ was a fascinating collaboration between academic historians and musicians from Americana band The Payroll Union who had come together to explore how we tell stories about the past, and particularly the history of Philadelphia in about 1840. Not a traditional gig, the evening began with various historians and musicians in conversation. They discussed similarities between the business of academic history and of music – or rather, song-writing. I was intrigued that most of these conversations focussed purely on narrative: both history and song were seen as story-telling devices, just different ways of interpreting people’s tales, or modes of research. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I think there are problems with making such a comparison. Not least the fact that (despite being a singer) I am generally not really someone who listens to lyrics of songs. So for me, they rarely tell a story unless I really really concentrate – and even then, the words might be blurred and misinterpreted. For me, I think there has to be something more than narrative in music. Of course some of the panel also pointed this out too: music is about emotional engagement. It does something utterly beyond narrative, beyond words. I can enjoy a song without having a clue what the words were. I was not sure if the same is true for history. Although as the evening developed, I think that thinking through history in an emotional way, rather than as it seemed, a series of facts, would certainly have made it more appealing to me when at school. I don’t really care what date something happened in, or even really what happened, but I am interested in how and why people responded to particular contexts.

Many of the comments in this discussion began “I am not a historian, but…” And this puzzled me. Why are we often so keen to identify ourselves through what we are not, rather than through what we are? I am not a historian, but… But more significantly, I found the implied separation between the ‘academic’ and the ‘creative practitioner’ quite problematic. There are hierarchical and value-based judgements at play here. Is the story-telling of the historian deemed more rigorous, or better, than that of the musician? Of course I think this project is working hard to break down what I would argue are false notions of a dichotomy between research and practice, the academic and the creative. But these things die hard. Why does it matter if I am not a historian? We are all storytellers.

So it was when the amazing Payroll Union began playing the 13 songs that they have written for this project, that I really began thinking even more. What a fantastic idea to not only be given the lyrics of the songs in the programme, to read through and learn from – but also to have these lyrics footnoted! A stroke of genius, and one that I really wish would catch on. Song writers are just that: writers, poets, storytellers – as well as being musicians. So to miss out on half their creation through not knowing what the words are, seems sad. Writing songs is a real craft, and here, the songs have been so deeply researched using historical documents, first person accounts, interviews, maps, that it was amazing to be able to read and take in the detail through this brilliant programme. I actually learnt more about American history and the city of Philadelphia last night – because of these lyrics – than I had ever known before. And it didn’t matter that they were imagined characters, not ‘factual’: in fact this made it all the more ‘real’. Better than history.

What I am not sure of though, is whether I learnt about the history through the music itself. The band is brilliant – fabulously talented musicians with great energy, passion – and the songs are fantastic. I loved them. I would have loved this gig even if I had no idea what the words were about, because the music grabbed me. If I had been at the End of the Road Festival, I could have listened to this all afternoon. But I wouldn’t have learnt anything about Philadelphia. And as the band themselves stated, the music itself is not authentic, for there are no recordings and no way of knowing what folk songs would have sounded like then. What is authenticity?

So here, I have questions again about the distinctions between academic research and creative practice… Where are the similarities in the ways of knowing? In ways of understanding the authentic? If I wrote a song about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, would that be doing the same sort of thing as this project did? Or if I made a collage of how I imagine Moyamensing, would that have been doing something similar? What is unique about a historian working with a musician? How would this project have differed if a photographer or visual artist were the collaborating partner? Yes, the outcomes would have looked different, told different stories, but they would have still told stories. I always end up with more questions than answers.

Anyway, whatever these are, it was brilliant, thought-provoking, inspiring – and amazing music. I look forward to buying my copy of the album and reading the lyrics at the same time. And I do hope that more bands will start sharing lyrics – with footnotes – at their gigs.


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