Guest Post: The Payroll Union’s Paris of America

Pete David is a songwriter from Sheffield, who performs with the band, The Payroll Union. They have produced two EPs—Underfed & Underpaid and Your Obedient Servant—and have two albums: The Mule & The Elephant and their most recent, Paris of America.

Andrew Heath (@andrewdheath) is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield in the UK. He spent several years in grad school in Philadelphia, where he became fascinated by the city’s nineteenth-century past.

The album cover of Paris of America.

The album cover of Paris of America.

Paris of America, a new album by the Sheffield U.K.-based band The Payroll Union, is the product of a two-year collaboration between  songwriter Pete David and historian Andrew Heath. With the help of funding from Sheffield University, Pete and the band explored the turbulent history of antebellum Philadelphia: a city in which racial, religious, and social strife earned it the title of “mob town” of the Union. Here, they reflect on the project, and the possibilities of exploring the history of the Early Republic beyond the more familiar routes of text and film.  

Pete David: I’ve been writing songs since I was 16, not long after I first picked up a guitar. Writing then was the compulsion to create. It was both a demonstration of some kind of ability that I’d been unconsciously looking for (my ambition to write prose was always vain and frustrating), and a cathartic expression of my adolescent frustrations. The former remains a continuous drive, while the latter desire to express my personal feelings in song (often referred to as ‘confessional’ songwriting) dissipated in my mid-twenties. My move away from this insular mechanism for writing was the main reason I found and adopted a form of narrative songwriting. This shift also happened to coincide with a deepening interest in nineteenth-century American history.

Members of The Payroll Union

Members of The Payroll Union

Andrew Heath: When I first saw The Payroll Union perform Pete was putting the finishing touches to an album on Jacksonian America which explored democracy, religion, and empire in antebellum America. Songs carried listeners to the revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening, the scandals that threatened Jackson’s cabinet, and the imperial designs of pioneers on the eve of the Mexican War. I’d had some inkling of what to expect from a friend, but hearing songs about Edwin Stanton, Charles Grandison Finney, and the cholera epidemic of 1832—all at a gig in a northern English city—still came as something of a surprise.

As I got to know Pete it became clear he was more interested in the imaginative interpretation of history than reproducing authentic antebellum music—the band is more Bad Seeds than bluegrass—but that made his work all the more interesting. Freed from the constraints of trying to sound like the nineteenth century, he uses modern form to convey a historical moment. As one review of the new album put it, The Payroll Union are certainly not reenactors.

PD: By the time I met Andrew and we agreed to work together to create something about mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia, I was learning how to recreate stories from history. Quite often, my narratives exist as a flight of imagination outside of what I’m reading. So, in “Winter of ‘41”, a song that uses bitter winter imagery to talk about the poverty found in the city following economic depression, I install James Fenimore Cooper as the narrator. The novelist was visiting the city, and in a letter to his wife, says, “Philadelphia is struck by a paralysis.”[1] It was from this simple but evocative line that I imagined Cooper walking the streets of the city, watching the poor pick driftwood that has been washed up from the thawing river to keep the homefires burning; he sees “the city as a whole,” when looking down from the hilltop Fairmount, Penn’s vision of a “greene Country Towne” “broken up and filled with people and disease”; and as the sun emerges, Cooper, lost in a reverie, “floats above the city’s roofs” to take in the chaos of a city distressed by nightly riots. The writer, educated and privileged, becomes an appropriate guide to the city’s woes—appalled, yet with a morbid fascination.

Before this project, writing on historical subjects came naturally out of my interest in American history, and was always inspired by my reading. A few years earlier, when reading about the Battle of Quebec, I began to wonder whether any soldiers who had fought for General Wolfe would have, after making a home in America, joined the Continental Army. Whether it did ever happen (it seemed plausible to me at the time), it was too good a narrative to ignore, and I wrote St Lawrence River.

For this project, I had greater access to research materials, and this changed how I wrote. Visiting the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania had a particular impact on me. Leafing (carefully) through Nativist newspapers from the early 1840s helped me bring to life the vociferous anti-immigrant sentiment that made its way into songs like The Ballad of George Shiffler—a song about memorializing a Protestant martyr in the 1844 Bible Riots—in a way I couldn’t have imagined previously. As I’ve mentioned, conveying the message lyrically comes before an obligation to ideas of historical accuracy, but I’m always determined that each song I write is an authentic story. I enjoy putting myself in the position of unlikeable characters, and this is common on the new album. The Mission Field was inspired by Sorrow’s Circuit, a preacher’s account of being a missionary to the poor and desolate of Philadelphia. The writer, Benjamin Sewell, is full of scorn for drunkards, gamblers, and in particular, Catholics, which in the district he works, covers many of his parishioners.

Elsewhere, “Bull” tells the tale of William McMullen, an Irish Catholic ward boss who ran his operations from a tavern in the city’s district of Moyamensing. McMullen led the violent street gang, The Killers, and the Moyamensing Fire Company. He was a significant figure in local politics for over forty years, and is thought to be responsible for the death of the black civil rights activist, Octavius Catto. The Irish radical, John Campbell, published a socialist manifesto in Philadelphia in 1848, and in the song, “White Slave of the North,” he criticises Northern middle-class abolitionists of hypocrisy. Campbell sees the privileged attack on slavery as a betrayal of white industrial workers. The battle cry of the burgeoning labour movement, “Blood or Bread,” was commonplace during the industrial action of the 1830s, and this song is a tour of the city’s booming manufacturing districts. The narrator harks back to a pre-industrial age when man used to “put his fingers to the soil.” It’s an attempt to understand the irreversible changes industry made to both the landscape and the city’s workers. This is followed by another story on how workers felt the pinch of the capitalist. “Will You Still Remember Me?” follows a Philadelphian handloom-weaver who resorts to the bottle after the economic depression forces him out of work.

I attempt to take both a close view of individual stories which illuminate particular themes, and a larger overview which can tie them together. “Blood or Bread” and “Will You Still Remember Me?” cover similar subjects, but the former is trying to imagine this bigger picture, and how personal narratives are connected to “the men who practice commerce in the city.”

AH: To work on the Philadelphia project, Pete and I typically met up every couple of weeks over a beer, and used the time to discuss sources and songs. My role was (fortunately given my musical ineptitude) limited to suggesting readings and running over ideas but it was fascinating to see what Pete did with the material.[2] The research he did impressed me. Pete used a blown up map of the antebellum city as a reference, pins and annotations marking the ties between a church burning here, a mission house there. Meanwhile he immersed himself in both the historiography and historical evidence. His reading of the likes of stranger’s guides, city mysteries fiction, and reform tracts roots the lyrics in the language of the time: weavers’ raise the cry of “bread or blood” in hard times; miasmas rise from the streets and poison the atmosphere; dolorous businessmen pass the closed doors of the Second Bank as Philadelphia’s economy languishes. As the album developed, moreover, Pete adopted the different perspectives of the urban historian. Some songs see the city as a whole, adopting the bird’s eye view beloved of antebellum lithographers, but in others we encounter the metropolis at street level, following people—reformers, radicals, and rioters—as they move through the taverns and tenements of neighborhood life.

PD: One of my original aims was to have a sequential narrative throughout the album, and I had to abandon this idea. The main problem with this approach came to light when sequencing the album. Much like a well-structured essay, the musical flow of a record must be carefully constructed if you’re to successfully convince the audience of its merits. As such, it would have required me to write songs to subjects without regard for melody, tempo and structure. On the current album, the earliest event is found in The Winter of ‘41, and although I tried to make the case with my bandmates for this to be the first track, I had to concede that an 8 minute slow-burning song which ends in a crescendo of white noise might not be an appropriate opener. That said, I was pleased that The 6th, a song which tells the story of a black regiment marching in 1863 through the streets of Philadelphia to cheering crowds, would be the perfect song to close the album, and was the latest event I covered. It’s a story of bitter redemption, and recalls the burning of an abolitionist hall in 1838, and a few years later, a riot in 1842 which ensued when African Americans, marching to commemorate the ending of slavery in Jamaica, were attacked by a white mob.

20150630_115410 20150630_115304AH: Paris of America—the title, from a line in a letter, compares Philadelphia to the French capital in a dual sense as a center of refinement and rebellion—ultimately needed to cohere as a piece of music rather than history, and as a result, it lacks a narrative arc. For me though this has advantages. Like the antebellum city, the album offers up a cacophony of accounts, and while the footnoted lyrics in the CD sleeve (written with the help of Sheffield students) provide an orientation, there’s no attempt to tell the listener a linear story. When an EP with additional material comes out in a few months, we might use playlists as tours, guiding the read through interconnected stories, places, and themes. One route for instance might explore the Bedford Street neighborhood of Moyamensing – Philadelphia’s “Five Points” and the setting for several songs – while another could chart battles over race and space.

Like any work of history the album has omissions. While the EP will rectify the imbalance, the white working classes are better represented than their black neighbors, and references to wage slavery could be misunderstood by a listener unfamiliar with Pete’s songwriting, which relies more on empathy than advocacy. His commendable fidelity to the source material also left its mark on the music. One song was abandoned when he discovered its main protagonist –who at least one historian has identified as a gang leader—was actually the invention of the contemporary novelist George Lippard. We’ll never know whether it would have been a hit.

Seeing a songwriter at work has shaped the way I’ve approached my own scholarship. Pete’s fascination with the evangelical impulse in particular pushed me to reconsider the role of religion—something I’ve tended to neglect—as a force in shaping the antebellum city. More fundamentally, perhaps, the collaboration has encouraged me to reflect on the challenges of condensing complex material into accessible ideas and stories. And the sheer pleasure of seeing (or rather hearing) a city I’ve explored almost entirely through print transformed into another medium has made the collaboration worthwhile. I’m not sure what Pete has planned next, but I’m hoping we won’t lose him to the twentieth century: he does have an unrecorded song about Chappaquiddick, after all.


[1] James Fenimore Cooper, ed., Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, Vol. 2 (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971), 440. See also Elizabeth Geffen, “Industrial Development and Social Crisis, 1841-1854”, in Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (New York: Norton, 1982), 308.

[2] Pete read widely in the history of Philadelphia and indeed antebellum America. Ideas for songs came from (among others) Bruce Laurie’s Working People of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980); Gary Nash’s First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); and Elizabeth Geffen’s chapter on the antebellum metropolis in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. He also explored much of the source material I’ve been working with in my own work on the city: the novels of George Lippard, the sketch journalism of George “Gaslight” Foster, the utopian designs of the socialist (and white supremacist) John Campbell, and the urban visions of male and female bourgeois reformers.


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