Talk about 40 Shades of Grey! History’s tints are legion and encompass every color in the spectrum.
And yet we often speak of the past as though etched in black and white, untouched by humanity’s imperfect fingers, with the result that inconvenient facts and attitudes are often swept aside.
Take the great mid-19th Century migration of Irish to the US. At such a great remove the ultimate triumph seems inevitable. But oh what suffering these despised immigrants endured to gain a foothold on the slippery and unwelcoming “shores of Amerikay.”
Sick, hungry and baffled by this new bustling, indifferent world many were ripped off at shipside by scurrilous agents (often Irish) promising them safe lodgings. Some, indeed, saw more people on their first day in the US than they had encountered in whole lives spent back in their native countryside.
The sights, sounds, expectations and obligations were unfamiliar and frightening. Unable to support their families, some men cracked under the strain, retreating to shebeens; others fled to more familiar and welcoming rural areas never to return.
This left a surplus of Irish women, some of whom partnered with more affluent African-Americans who held good jobs as waiters, sailors and stevedores. These couples were called “amalgamationists;” for the most part they lived in their own streets and alleys of New York City’s notorious Five Points.
That all changed on July 13, 1863, when the Civil War Draft Riots broke out. These disturbances were sparked by a provision that allowed draftees to buy their way out of the Union Army for a sum of $300.
The tension had been mounting since January when Abraham “Africanus” Lincon had proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in the Confederate states. Unscrupulous Democratic politicians fanned the “unease” by suggesting that the New York City labor market would be flooded by an influx of newly freed slaves.
This is the volatile world I explore in Hard Times, a dramatic musical that opens tomorrow night at The Cell Theatre. For a score I chose mostly Stephen Foster songs since he was present in the Five Points during the riots and writing some of his best, though underappreciated, music.
Foster would die six months later at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. Some think his death was caused by suicide – his family claimed he fell on a jug and cut his throat in a Bowery rooming house.
I first became attracted to Foster’s music as a teenage guitarist accompanying customers in Wexford pubs. I used to marvel at the latent sadness of Old Folks At Home when delivered by a burly sailor, while a refined old man left dents in my heart from his melancholic delivery of Gentle Annie.
The old Five Points neighborhood is now interred beneath the Foley Square courthouses. Charles Dickens immortalized the area in his American Journals though he disapproved of the fraternization between Irish and African-Americans; nor was he particularly fond of the music they hammered out together, although he did admire their dance steps – these would later morph into Tap dancing.
While creating Hard Times I often walked down the same flagstones of the Bowery that Foster tread upon and wondered about this singular composer. What drove him to live out his days in a pulsing, melting-pot New York slum when he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his wife and child back in Pittsburgh?
Supposedly he was by then a down and out alcoholic. But drunks don’t churn out 30 songs in a year – especially of the quality of Beautiful Dreamer, one of his last, or the even more haunting Why No One To Love.
The accepted portrait of Foster is that of a self-destructive artist, wan and pensive; but what then to make of a photograph taken of him, hale and hearty weeks before his death with his friend and collaborator, George Cooper?
What was Stephen Foster doing in the Five Points during the riots? Obviously writing – but was he also waiting for someone? We’ll never know for certain but some answers are suggested in Hard Times at The Cell Theatre, 338 W. 23rd St. NYC until Sept. 30th.