Stefan Bielinski 's formal title is historian, but it might as well be Renaissance man. He sings, learns any musical instrument when the occasion demands, dabbles in the Internet by creating his own website, and most recently (well for the last 25 years), collects and presents biographical information on every Albany citizen before 1800 - all 16,000 of them. Interviewed recently, Bielinski told us "The more I learn, the less I know I know."
The Colonial Albany Social History Project, his work since 1981, started a few years after the 1975 publication of his study entitled Abraham Yates, Jr. and the new political order in Revolutionary New York. Yates, Bielinski said, was a middle leader - a lawyer during the American Revolution, a professional civil servant, and an Albany native. Bielinski wrote that Yates was a typical "every man" of Albany. While presenting a paper at a conference on lawyers and the American Revolution, someone asked what a typical "every man" of Albany was like. "I knew Abraham Yates, but I had no idea, who the people were," he said. "I saw the fallacy of this. I realized that leaders are just a tiny part of society. So I stopped being a biographer of the rich and famous and aimed at the lives of ordinary people and more typical . . . Now I teach history about the people, by the people, and for the people."
Collecting biographical information on the every man (and woman) is not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound that easy, Bielinski, along with volunteers, students and interns, uses community archives, census reports, and records of government to learn about people who left no written legacies of their own. One entire wall in his office at the Cultural Education Center posts the detailed procedure for creating the 5x8 index card biographies that list an individual's birth, death, marriage, offspring, and comprehensive activities information. These index card biographies are massive and are stored in the 30 or so filling cabinets that cover every bit of wall space around the office.
At the beginning of trying to present their story to public audiences, Bielinski was criticized for "cheapening" history by making it too popular, too accessible. He defends his program, which is designed to captivate 8 to 88 year olds, because it focuses on history not taught in school. "I find it draws people to [history]. There's a spectrum of people," he said while drawing an imaginary line on the desk in front of him. "On one end, are people who are intensely interested in everything, and then there are people who hate thinking about anything. They were put off by history in school - all the names and dates which didn't relate to them at all. Or it was about great white men and [they're] not, which is [who makes ups] the other 98 percent of society. So history through the eyes of the 'great white founding fathers' puts off a lot of people. So what I talk about in my lectures, songs, and my writing is the everyday people who are more like the rest of us than the great leaders."
The so-called ordinary people (Bielinski points out they were "typical" not ordinary) are shown in the 40 or so slide images that make up about half of the presentation. After the initial screening, he reruns the colorful and interesting images - taking questions along the way. The whole program usually lasts an hour. "It's really hands on," he said. "You can't help but ask questions, and I work off of that."
Bielinski really knows the people represented on slides. He knows their names, birth and death dates, wives, children, lineage, home addresses, activities and exploits, artists who painted their portraits, and anything else - all by heart. The show also includes street scenes, houses, and maps from the 1700s.
The slides shift in tune with a song Bielinski wrote and played himself - all thirteen vocal and instrumental parts. I was Music major in college for a while and the thing that put me off about it was that so much of classical music was mysterious and inaccessible. Classical music] took a very trained ear. It was considered serious music," said Bielinski, who bounced around half a dozen campuses in the State University system. "I grew up in the 1960s and [in music courses] classical was the only 'legitimate' music. Don't get me wrong. It's all wonderful. Absolutely breathtaking! But its sophistication keeps most people away from music. That's why folk music became so popular in the 1950s and 60s. It was easy to understand, to relate to. And that's why when [a particular type of] rock and roll gets too complicated, something else comes along - whether it's grunge or new wave or rock-a-billy. All these different kinds of popular music bring it back down to the people.
I was a professional musician for a long time and music is about communicating with an audience. This experiences has helped me greatly as a public historian. During the 1980s, we understood that our public programs needed a musical component. At the start of an event - to settle and soothe the crowd, to fill 'dead air,' and ideally to condition the audience for what was to come next. My colleagues suggested a number of musical approaches ranging from classical to folk selections - none of which had anything to do with our typical presentation on the people of colonial Albany. My immediate reaction was: 'I hate all of these!' So after many years of being an itinerent musician - playing other people's music, I sat down and wrote a song myself."
Bielinski's song is a cross between guitar-driven rock and roll, "School House Rock" - a campy 70s educational television program which aired Saturday mornings to give kids basic information about such things as vocabulary, government, and the proper diet, and 60s folk songs in the tradition of Joan Baez and the early Beatles.
Bielinski has presented this program about 20 times so far this year. He pitches the presentation according to the audience or the month. The next presentation will be "Tinkers, Tailors, and Traders: Working People in Early Albany" on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30p.m. in the Museum Theater. He expects the audience to be mostly elementary school students - who have been invited to the Museum. But some workers will come and neighboring State workers will be there as well. The program focuses on the workers of early Albany and commemorates Labor History Month.
The Colonial Albany Social History Project is run out of New York State Museum, an agency of the State Education Department.
Adapted from an article originally published in The Legislative Gazette: The Weekly Newspaper of New York State Government, on May 4, 1998 (volume 21, number 18).