Tales From History: The Public History Applications of Music

Long time, no blog post. I will be the first person to admit that I've been slacking on writing blog posts recently, and it's been incredibly busy and I am even more incredibly easily distracted. But we're back, baby!


The topic of choice for this week's post seems kind of anachronistic when compared against my last one, which was "Video and History", and this one is focusing on music and history (insert a really bad "video killed the radio star" joke here, let your imagination run wild).


When I say "music and history", it could mean a multitude of things. Am I going to talk about the history of music itself? Perhaps historical music, or the develop of music through history? The answer to all of these is a resounding "no", because there's historians far better equipped to handle such topics than I. We're going to look at the idea of telling history through song in a more modern context, but looking at individual songs and albums by some artists I listen to regularly.


As someone who was an emo kid from approximately 2006-present (emos never die, they just grow up into slightly pretentious twenty-somethings with an affinity for indie bands, ie. Me.), I was not immune to the ever-so-cliché "music is my life" statement. I listen to a lot of music, and as such a lot of different types of music (Except country. Can't do it.).

Stan Rogers is a Canadian artist I listen to quite frequently (I spent a portion of my childhood on the East Coast and have a father who just loves looking at boats. We listened to a lot of Stan.) who has a lot of songs based in historical themes, and while I wouldn't consider him particularly modern given the fact that he died in 1983, I'm still going to count him. Rogers is a celebrated folk artist who wrote and sang pretty much anything martime related. You'd be hard pressed to find a bar in Halifax that hasn't played at the very least a cover of Barrett's Privateers at some point. This is one of those songs that seems to tell a history, but it's accuracy is questionable. If you didn't know any better, the trials and tribulations of the Antelope's crew sounds like a really great regaling, and then you wonder how they wish they could in in Sherbrooke in 1778 when it wasn't founded as a town until 1815. Date accuracies aside, Barrett's Privateers does a pretty good job of presenting the fate of a lot of privateering vessels in this time period, and the fate of the often ill-prepared crews.


Another Rogers classic is The Nancy, which tells the story of the Great Lakes merchant-ship-turned-war-vessel, the HMS Nancy, and her captain Alexander Macintosh on the St. Clair River between Amherstberg and Detroit. This one is actually pretty spot on historically, if not a little coloquialized with some more Rogers-esque terms. The song acually only tells a part of the HMS Nancy's heroic actions during the War of 1812, as the schooner remained an integral part of defending the northern Great Lakes waterways in the midst of the fighting. I mentioned the song and Rogers in the report that went along with a digital exhibition project I did in an introductory Public History class in my third year of undergrad, which can be viewed here.

Frank Turner is a British artist who started off in a punk band and then transitioned into a solo singer-songwriter career over time. Frank is a bit of a historian himself, keeping track of every single show he's ever played (right down to the number!), remarking something about it, and he keeps excellent records in addition to being an incredibly talented musician. I envy the archivist that ends up with his personal papers some day because deep in my soul I know they are meticulous and organized and will be a dream to process and accession.


While he's been active as a musical storyteller for well over a decade (and has some amazing politically charged songs a la 1933), we're going to talk about his most recent album, No Man's Land because it's both historically spectacular and feminist as hell. No Man's Land, apart from having a clever name and beautiful artwork, is a collection of songs that tell the stories of famous/infamous women throughout history.

Album artwork for Frank Turner's "No Man's Land". I wasn't lying when I said the art is beautiful.

Some of the songs speak about specific women, like Sister Rosetta (about Rosetta Tharpe, the original soul sister and godmother of rock'n'roll) or Eye of the Day (English translation of the name of famed courtesan/assumed spy, Mata Hari), while others are more generalized or target significant historic events involving women. For example, Graveyard of the Outcast Dead follows the fate of a fictional (yet derived from true stories) prostitute who was eventually buried in London's famed Cross Bones Cemetery, which was an unconsecrated piece of land that the marginalized populations of London ended up being buried in, which was turned into tenement housing and parking lots. There's also Silent Key, which is about Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster on live television.


The songs and their subjects are incredibly well researched. You can get the gist of the historic value just by listenting, and on my first listen through the album I found myself going immediately to Google to read more about the women I hadn't heard of and became absolutely enthralled with them. You can imagine my further excitement when I was informed Turner has a podcast titled Tales From No Man's Land that not only discusses the making of the album, but the women behind the songs and he goes incredibly in depth.


When looking at the applications of public history through music, I have to say that Frank Turner pretty much nails it. Well written (both lyrically and melodically) songs accompanied by research-based podcasts and blog posts? And it happens to be about lesser-known-yet-still-important women? Be still my cold, cynical, feminist historian heart.

Writing and performing "historic music" is all fine and dandy, but consumers of this form of media have to take it with a grain of salt. How can we be sure that what we're listening to is fact or fiction, and if it's even partially fact, what parts of it? Music is tricky, especially since the average song is anywhere from 2-5 minutes long. How can you fit accurate, useful information into that small a slot when you have to account for instrumentals as well? Disseminating history through music is in no way a new idea, but how can we do it properly in a digitial age? It's a lot more complicated than most people would think, but it is definitely possible. I'm interested in seeing if there's more artists out there who can figure out how.



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