Canadian Art - - Legacy - By Si­mone E. Sch­midt

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.

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