but they like it!
Community History, Popular Music, and Public Audiences
The theater lights dim. A milling, murmuring crowd begins to settle into its seats. While their eyes are adjusting to the darkness, swirling, synthesized sounds snap them to attention. As the volume builds, the chatting subsides. Heads turn to the large theater screen where the brightly colored words "People of Colonial Albany" suddenly appear - punctuated by the loud choral arpeggios "Re-mem-ber You!" - "Re-mem-ber You!" No, this isn't a stop on the "Bridges to Babylon Tour;" but the start of a public lecture entitled Meet the People of Colonial Albany. Over the next five minutes, the audience absorbs a fast-paced offering of diverse images depicting life in an early American community. The pictures are accompanied by a catchy pop tune called Albany: A Song of Community. At the end of the presentation, the audience invariably applauds - sometimes even enthusiastically. As the lights come up, people in the room lean forward in anticipation.
The theatrical introduction and the use of popular music and engaging visuals are resources from my days as an itinerant musician. They have helped the New York State Museum's Colonial Albany Social History Project bring cutting-edge scholarship in early American History to popular audiences ranging from the entirely apathetic to the totally engrossed.
The Colonial Albany Project intends to interpret community data-based historical and ethnographic scholarship for diverse audiences by utilizing a range of programming formats including publications, "on the street" exhibits, music, media, and particularly the Internet. Since 1981, project staff consisting primarily of students and volunteers have been implementing a research design aimed at developing comprehensive biographies for every man, woman, and child who lived in the city of Albany and was born before the end the year 1800. The project's principal resource is an in-progress data base of 16,000 biographies of early Albany people. A graphics archive consisting of several thousand images of the people of colonial Albany and their world, and a research library (holding copies of every relevant research document) in support of the lifecourse biographies. Project ideology and all elements of its research and analysis, programming, and service initiatives are described in detail in The People of Colonial Albany: A Community History Project (1994 edition and supplements) - a comprehensive guide which also lists staff, associates, graduates, clients, and benefactors. A number of articles describe functional aspects of the program.
For almost two decades now, I have been working to apply a multidisciplinary community history approach to the question of why the people of a booming colonial community abandoned a way of life that seemed to work and [instead] became ardent supporters of the crusade for American liberties in 1776. I founded the Colonial Albany Social History Project as a vehicle for implementing the "history of the people, by the people, and for the people" approach of the community historian in the city where I grew up and have worked for the past thirty years.
Several hundred students and scholars, friends and neighbors, and descendants worldwide have helped out since 1981. To humanize our understanding of community dynamics, we have been developing comprehensive biographies for each of the 16,000 men, women, and children who lived in the city of Albany, New York prior to the Industrial Revolution. That ambition mobilized a large number of disparately motivated researchers to labor for many years amid a sea of interested parties and skeptics who demanded findings or at least evidence of progress in executing an ambitious research design.
As scholarly papers and subsequent journal articles began to validate the effort, we began to look for ways to bring what we had learned to broader public audiences. Initial consumable products were popular and news media articles, portable and drop-off exhibits and posters, TV and radio appearances, surprisingly successful Women of Colonial Albany Community History Calendar's, city-as-artifact trolley bus tours, lectures, workshops, and other presentation programs that brought the people of colonial Albany to more than a hundred schools, libraries, and other community centers. All of these programs were widely promoted by an interested and sympathetic local media.
With the public program becoming an effective means of reaching out to the public at-large, we strove to make each presentation more meaningful and user friendly - supplementing and softening each with illustrations of early Albany/American life. Project staff culled and adapted illustrations identified during a systematic search of collections of historic portraits, maps, views, and other period renderings, material remains, and documentary resources. Included in this sweep were signatures and other textual representations, contemporary illustrations of community activities elsewhere, and a still-growing archive of modern recreations of community life that would help us visually characterize individuals, activities, and themes.
In 1985, I began working with the historical artist Leonard F. Tantillo, first on a Tricentennial exhibit called "Government by the People" that yielded four pen-and-ink drawings of life in Albany in 1686. These representations: an overview diagram of the city [that was] based on a British army engineer's map, property records, and descriptions of individual buildings; and three activity scenes (the first common council meeting, the fur trade, and street life) also got me thinking about spatial issues and inspired the social geography approach taken in my Tricentennial publication also called Government by the People. Since then, the architect-turned-artist has called on us for support in the production of more than a dozen paintings of historic Albany that have become engaging and useful mainstays of our visual interpretations. I believe Len is Albany's most effective historian. His work and paintings are chronicled in Visions of New York State: The Historical Paintings of L. F. Tantillo.
Finally, photographs and video recordings dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present provide yet another dimension. That long-term and still ongoing effort left us with several thousand images mostly captured on slides - [at that time] the most efficient means of storing and exhibiting our new "collection." Visuals have become staples of our public programs with artistic questions and issues entering the mix in ways I would not thought possible just a decade ago.
The use of music sprang from an internal discussion in 1987 on just what background music should warm-up the room before the start of a lecture. I found myself uncharacteristically passive in initial discussions but did feel put off by the suggestion of using Enlightenment-era classical music or romanticized folk songs. After all, the Colonial Albany Project was founded and is dedicated to the recovery and celebration (and at the same time - the realistic interpretation) of the lives and contributions of the so-called "other 98%" - the ordinary people and minorities whose exclusion, we were told, has made history personally irrelevant for many people. To use music intended for the elite ears and egos seemed a betrayal of our basic purpose. I needed to sensitize our students and associates to that fact and also to try and use what I sincerely believe is the universal language in a meaningful way! Calling on my great experience as an MTV watcher, I began to dream about how the people of colonial Albany might come alive for public audiences. A decade later, those dreams continue!
I confess to quickly overcoming an acquired reluctance to mix media, resolved to employ music, and laid plans on how to begin. Our first offering was titled "Faces of the City." It featured six-dozen black-and-white portraits on black backgrounds that faded in on top of each other. The images were selected portray diversity and were periodically punctuated by somber text slides pointing out the racial, class, and gender biases of surviving portraiture. As musical accompaniment, I surprised my colleagues by selecting Antonin Dvorak's symphony "From the New World" - a perfect choice because of its inspiration and spirit, and because - with some rearranging - the attitude of individual portraits could be linked to the mood of each musical movement. I was overjoyed! Played just before the start of public lectures in our museum theater, "Faces of the City" was a complete success. It settled and sobered the audience, reminded them that history was about people, and provided some feel for the parameters of life in the past. Dating from our first musical offering in 1988, all concerned understood that no presentation on the people of colonial Albany would be complete without some musical accompaniment.
A few years earlier, a silly song called "Let's Have a Party Albany," had won a contest to select an official theme for the Albany "Tricentennial" - a well-endowed, yearlong celebration of the 300th anniversary of Albany's chartering as a city in 1686. I was embarrassed and incensed that again my hometown had managed to trivialize its rich heritage. My anger quickly was translated into action! After two decades of performing other people's music, I finally was moved to write a song of my own.
What became the "Albany Theme" asked the listener to "turn back the pages" to consider the fundamental roots of the community and the trials and triumphs of the diverse peoples who came together and "made a city strong to last for 300 years." Each verse introduced the essential elements and issues related to Albany's founding, growth, and development. A long coda featured thirty-nine individual people of colonial Albany selected to represent the community across class, racial, ethnic, and gender lines (Anna Cuy-ler, Samuel Schuy-ler, Jacob Maas, and Mary Ty-ler). After singing it a few times as a folk song and then recording our kids chanting the names (Matthew Visscher, Rachel Douw, Barents Mynders fixed a plow) to iron-out rhyming problems, I moved on to more substantial matters.
By 1988, thematic offerings by the Colonial Albany Social History Project had become a mainstay of public programs at the New York State Museum. Our presentations were so frequent that additional musical expositions were needed. First, I recorded the theme's chorus:
your sons and your daughters can be proud of you;
Al-ban-y, child of the ages,
let's turn back the pages and remember you,
re-mem-ber you, re-mem-ber you."
Then, I skipped to the end part with the historic names. That 90-second abridgment was backed with a bouncy, pop beat and guitar/bass/keyboards instrumentation. I performed all instrumental and singing parts myself and recording the thirteen part presentation in my basement. The selection was synchronized to two-dozen panoramic community images that included portraits, comparative visuals, signatures, and other representations of the named individuals.
During that winter, I used the musical spot on a number of occasionns - much to the amusement and delight of my audiences. After more than a decade of reading academic papers to typically passive and/or indifferent audiences, I experienced the instant gratification of audience approval that I had not experienced since stepping out of the musical spotlight a decade earlier. Upon learning that I planned to continue down that road, my fellow historians and some museum professionals voiced fears that I had taken yet another plunge into flaky and unorthodox waters.
By the next spring, I had recorded a full version of the theme, expanded the visual presentation to cover the music, and was using it to introduce all public programs on the people of colonial Albany. Because it included the best eighty images of life in early Albany and raised the most significant historical and social themes, I jokingly began referring to that package as "Early Albany 101" - a five-minute overview history. What I understood early on (but dared not say) was that the audiovisual presentation also was the most comprehensive, meaningful, and effective history of the community produced to date. In the years that followed, several thousand local people saw and heard the production in its original introductory venue or as an entertaining supplement to a broader public program entitled "Peopling Colonial New York." As requests for general audience programs increased and the mention of a visual and/or musical component invariably met with an enthusiastic response, I finally realized that, with an obvious twist, the "Albany Theme" presentation could become an effective program by itself.
In the meantime, I was able to enlist Tim Lynch - a former student intern and performing musician. He offered his new sound studio to re-record the music with much more sophisticated equipment than in the past. Tim's production skills and encouragement were largely responsible for a new recording that sounded good when played on my daughter's portable player and terrific on the State Museum's theater sound system. We simply adjusted presentation volume to suit particular audiences.
Over the years, the visual component has evolved continuously to include newly "discovered" historic images, the re-creations of historical artist Len Tantillo, and views, portraits, and maps from our graphics archive that better illustrated community themes. These changes were necessary because, by 1993, I had begun using the music/slide package as the program itself. As in the past, we began with the slides accompanied by the song. The major criticisms of that offering had been the inability of the audience to see the images for more than a few beats and that there was no opportunity to ask questions before being confronted by the next image. The new format provided relief for audience anxieties and frustrations. After the musical offering, the slides were re-set and I interpreted each image. Some were considered in depth. Others were skipped over or just mentioned, depending on the topic of the particular presentation, my other agendas-du-jour, and/or audience curiosity. For example, for a program supporting my current book project, "The Other Revolutionaries," the community setting, actual and symbolic participants, the specific sites of the armory, docks, hospital, and jail as they were during the 1770s are discussed at length. Images depicting Fort Orange, the fur trade, and first city council meeting in 1686, however, are treated only briefly to hold the program time to under an hour.
That format has worked well in all settings as audiences were given a crash historical orientation with the initial slides and song. By revisiting the images, I am able to address items on my list and those in the audience can pursue their interests in the informal image and question format. At the same time, I am able to orchestrate the pace of the program with a simple click! The program ends when everyone is satisfied and all come away from the experience feeling better and more connected to the community and to our more personal forebears as well.
In 1998, this initiative gathered new momentum. Because of the response to a local newspaper feature story about my work on African Americans and in celebration of a recently published journal on Albany's first African-American families, I expected to be in some demand during February - Black History Month. After the first request, I created a program titled "Dinnah Jackson's Albany." The promotional flyer advertised it as a musical and visual overview of city life 200 years ago and celebrated the emergence of Albany's African-American families - focusing on the life of Dinnah Jackson, Albany's first black matriarch - who died in 1818. The formula was simple: start with "Early Albany 101" - music and slides. Replace two dozen of the images with illustrations depicting early American African Americans at work, home, and in the community. Use each of the images and the lyrics to involve the audience and to illustrate parts of the Afro-American experience. Answer questions and modify subsequent presentations to anticipate newly raised issues.
Presented with new sound equipment, "Dinnah Jackson's Albany" was a smashing success. Local groups including agencies of municipal and county government (sponsors of a Black History Month art and essay contest based on my Afro-Albanian families article), the city schools, colleges and universities, churches, libraries, and historical and genealogical societies were appreciative recipients of "Dinnah Jackson's Albany" during February. Since then, I have modified the imagery for public programs entitled "Tinkers, Tailors, and Traders: Working People in Early Albany" for Labor History Month in May, "The Schuyler Family in Early Albany" for the annual meeting of the Friends of Schuyler Mansion, and "Boys and Girls in Early Albany" for in-school presentations. Although this program seems to have almost limitless utility, I have been developing more subtle instrumental variations of the theme and have continued to work on new songs on the impact of the colonial wars called "Peace and Freedom," and on the death of a brewer's daughter in 1731 in a ballad called "Sara."
To date, the Colonial Albany Social History Project has presented adaptations of the program to a wide range of audiences: school children, walk-in museum visitors, heritage tour groups, professional historians, and other special interest assemblages. Whatever the topic or theme, audiences of all ages and backgrounds invariably come away from what has become a participatory experience with some satisfaction and appreciation for life in an early American community.
During the Fall of 1997, a presentation of "Early Albany 101" at a mixed regional history conference held at SUNY New Paltz concluded with a loud ovation, but not before a skeptical professor was moved to ask "What do you expect an audience to get out of that?" (Or - how could a bombardment of so many images and phrases have any real meaning?) Without thinking, my quick retort: "Five minutes of community history. But five minutes most people won't soon forget" made all of us pause to reflect. Then, another member of the audience ended the session when he spoke up saying "I know it's only rock 'n roll. But I liked it!"
Sometimes when we try,
Adapted from an article published in Northeast Historical Archaeology (journal of the Council for Northeast Historical Archeology) volume 27 (1998). I wrote the article at the request of CNEHA officers after presenting "Early Albany 101" at their annual meeting held in Albany in October 1996. That issue also includes two essays which critique this one.
I composed "the Albany Theme" over the winter of 1986-87. It was first used in November 1989 to introduce a public lecture series on the people of colonial Albany at the New York State Museum. Titled "Albany: A Song of Community," in its current CD format the song runs for 4 minutes 54 seconds. It has been recorded by my fantasy group "Duke and the Beverets." Tim Lynch, a former intern and student, and a professional musician as well, gave me access to his recording studio in 1993 and helped immeasurably with technical issues. He also contributed the rhythm and keyboard tracks on the song.
Articles include: Stefan Bielinski, "Building Blocks of the Past: The Community Biography Approach to Local History," The Bookmark 49:3 (Spring 1991); "Bricks and Mortar of the Community Mosaic: From the bottom-Up and Inside-Out Perspectives on Life in Colonial Albany," the English language version of a paper presented at a conference on pre-industrial communities held at the University of Paris in 1992, and published in Memoire privee memoire collective dans l'Amerique pre-industrielle, edited by Elise Marienstras and Marie-Jeanne Rossignol (Paris, 1994); and "Welcome to the Gallows Hill Facility: Basic Training for Social History Recruits" (forthcoming).
Images used here, for example, were a beautiful pastel of Anna Cuyler Van Schaick (1685-1743) by itinerant artist Henrietta Deering Johnson from a painting in the collection of the New York State Museum, and an italicized line from the Albany city directory for 1815 listing Samuel Schuyler, skipper, at 204 S. Pearl - the italics denoting a "free person of color".
Images for each line of the chorus change but follow this sequence: Albany - the city seal or a map or artifact with the word "Albany" engraved on it. City on the Water - a historic or modern historical panoramic (Tantillo) water-level view. Your Sons and your Daughters - family portrait grouping. Child of the ages - image of one of the city's eighteenth-century churches/community centers. Lets turn back the pages - portrait of a city father (or mother) presented in chronological sequence.