Faith & Fear in Philadelphia is a collaboration between local Americana band The Payroll Union and the University of Sheffield, aiming to explore the city of Philadelphia during the mid-19th century. Through the research of Dr Andrew Heath, Professor of American History, and the work of filmmaker Cathy Soreny, the project will document the creation […]

Faith & Fear in Philadelphia is a collaboration between local Americana band The Payroll Union and the University of Sheffield, aiming to explore the city of Philadelphia during the mid-19th century. Through the research of Dr Andrew Heath, Professor of American History, and the work of filmmaker Cathy Soreny, the project will document the creation of music inspired by the turbulent growth of Philadelphia in the mid-1800s. With as much focus on the process as on the end result, the project will also address the debate surrounding different ways of communicating history to a wider audience. I spoke to lead singer Pete David, along with Andrew and Cathy, to get an insight into the project.

How did the project start?
[Pete] I met Andrew and a couple of other historians from the History Department at a gig in Sheffield. We hit it off straight away. It was unusual for me to get the opportunity to talk about the songs’ subjects in detail. They got in touch later to see if I was interested in collaborating in some way and I jumped at the chance.

[Cathy] Pete and Andrew had already crossed their historical minds and started to think about ways they could creatively develop their mutual fascination with American history. I was really fortunate that they saw and understood the power of film to bring the process to life, and asked me to come on board to document the process.

Tell us a little bit more about the historical context.
[Andrew] Philadelphia in the 1830s to 1860s was a city of extremes. At the time, it was the second biggest metropolis in North America, with only New York surpassing it, and it was growing fast. Yet as factories and stores sprang up and as refugees from the Irish famine and southern slavery swelled the population, citizens struggled to adjust. Workers battled bosses over pay and hours. Protestants fought against Catholic newcomers. Whites hounded African-Americans and the abolitionists called for an immediate end to human bondage in the states south of Pennsylvania. By 1844, Philadelphia, founded in the 17th century as a haven of tolerance, had acquired the nickname ‘The Quaker City’. It was an ironic dig at how far the metropolis had descended from its pacifist roots.

Tell us about the filming you’ve been doing for the project.
[Cathy] We are covering the many aspects of the creative process that feed into making an album – seeing how it develops over a period of several months and how it is being influenced and nurtured by the collaboration with Andrew and the History department. Luckily for us, there are many fascinating illustrations and printed articles from the period, so it will be fun to see how we can weave these into our films.

What have you learned so far about communicating the past through different media such as music and art?
[Pete] It’s really difficult! We’ve always said that the project should be about the process itself, and that can create a lot of uncertainty, but ultimately it’s way more exciting to have an explorative outlook. I’m looking for people and stories that are going to resonate with the audience, and while I find the reading fascinating, I can sometimes get too close to it and lose the connection. That’s the balance I’m looking for – something that is authentic but also gets under the skin of the listener.

[Andrew] It’s reminded me that history is fundamentally about storytelling, and that those stories are not simply out there. In this regard, history requires a leap of imagination, and seeing Pete work in this way has helped me a great deal in thinking about my own work.

[Cathy] For me it’s totally new to explore history through film, having previously covered social issues as the mainstay of my work. However, I have always been passionate about finding ways to take knowledge outside of the ivory towers that universities are often perceived as being.

What can we expect from the event on 30 May?
[Pete] The gig at the Library Theatre is the culmination of a lot of work. We’ll have recorded a large part of the album by then, and it’ll be great to give our audience the first live glimpse of what we’ve been working on. We’re hoping the gig will also contain some use of primary source material. When I was in Philadelphia in January, I recorded some locals reading out diary entries and quotes of some of the characters I’m covering in the songs, so we’re going to use those in an interesting way.

thepayrollunion.com

Aidan Daly.