SONGS FROM ROCKWOOD ASYLUM
A musician’s investigation into the case files of female inmates at Canada’s first asylum for the criminally insane reveals the inherent gaps and biases present in the structure of the archive
In 1859, construction of the Rockwood Asylum for the criminally insane began in Portsmouth, just west of the Kingston Penitentiary, in what is now known as Eastern Ontario. Built over nine years by penitentiary labourers, it was first established, in 1856, to house a class of criminal that disturbed the social order of both asylums and penitentiaries. The criminally insane included people who pleaded insanity at their trials, and convicts who had become insane while imprisoned.
Audible Songs from Rockwood is a collaboration between real musician Fiver and invented song collector Simone Carver. It compiles imagined songs from women held at Rockwood between 1856 and 1881. An excerpt from their conversation about the process is transcribed below.
Fiver: When you approached me to arrange these Audible Songs from Rockwood, I was compelled by the possibility of new narrative voices in traditional North American folk music. I love the genre, its melody and form, but often feel the songs sung from women’s perspectives occupy a narrow subject matter: woman as murder victim, woman as devil, woman wed to the devil.
While I deeply value the traditionalists’ approach to preserving song, I do not personally feel that these are emancipatory visions to repeat constantly. They impact the psyche. So, your proposal to broaden the scope of those voices was welcome. Songwriting is a refuge for those overactive and musically compelled minds dealing with trauma and crisis. They’re landlines for those of us communing with something indecipherable to our cohabitants. How did you go about collecting these songs from Rockwood?
Simone Carver: Most folk listeners are familiar with song collection by way of field recordings, like Alan Lomax’s recordings of Muddy Waters. Less popular was the methodology of ethnomusicologists like Paul Clayton. In 1950–51, Clayton travelled to Britain, collecting broadsides of traditional ballads. He then made recordings of himself playing them for release on Folkways Records, accompanied by deeply detailed liner notes describing the origins of the songs.
Our process of retroactive reconstruction is similar, with marked differences to deal with the inaccessibility of the inmates at Rockwood due to the temporal rift of 150 years. I’d access the case files of Rockwood’s inmates through the Archives of Ontario, throw on the white gloves, then flip through the brittle pages, reading the intake forms and ledgers, superintendents’ diaries, reports to the Dominion of Canada, inspectors’ memoranda, etc. From these I could find characters and, from them, I sometimes heard song.