Wednesday 20 March 2013

Our Lost Sisters - The Amalgamationists

I first became aware of their existence in faded penciled sketches from the dance halls of New York’s Five Points neighborhood.

Perhaps it was their happy faces that made the young Irish women and their African-American dancing partners seem so natural and unaffected. Only later did I discover that these particular inter-racial couples were called Amalgamationists.

The very word itself seems Dickensian and has long gone out of currency. But Amalgamationists were a well-known presence in the socially liberated environs of the Five Points.

Picture New York in 1844 - on the cusp of the great Irish Potato Famine - a raucous, though manageable, port city. Within a decade it had been swamped by up to a hundred thousand hungry, frightened Irish, glad to put their feet down on any steady ground after a brutal trans-Atlantic journey.

It was the first major emigration to the US that contained equal numbers of men and women. The vast majority came from very rural backgrounds. Pete Hamill once put it to me, “the newly arrived Irish saw more people in their first ten minutes on Broadway than they had in all their lives back home.”

They had no qualification for urban living and were instantly thrown into fierce competition for the humblest of jobs. Is it any wonder that some of the men cracked under the pressure and retreated to the many pubs and shebeens of the Five Points, while others headed for California and the Gold Rush.

Irish women didn’t crack – there were children to be looked after; besides a hardscrabble living could be made taking in washing, and there were kitchens to be run and sculleries to be scrubbed in the great Yankee houses uptown.

The African-American men in New York City were mostly sailors, waiters, carriage drivers and dockworkers; they were a step up the social ladder from the arriving Irish. With a shortage of African-American women in Manhattan it was only a matter of time until unions were formed.

It didn’t hurt that dancehalls were mostly African-American owned at a time when dancing was the national pastime; besides, inter-racial socializing had been common in the Five Points for years.

Amalgramationist couples and their children stuck together and moved into the same areas, Hart’s Alley being the best known. A new social experiment was afoot; though viewed suspiciously by wealthy uptown reformers it was not considered a threat because of the apparent stability and compatibility of the couples.

But tensions mounted after the Civil War broke out. The Irish felt they were being discriminated against on the docks whenever African-American longshoremen were hired. Then on Jan 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation; the fear amongst the Irish – fanned by unscrupulous Democratic politicians – was that New York would soon be flooded by liberated southern slaves.

The first compulsory draft into the Union army followed soon after; it was bitterly resented by the Irish particularly since the wealthy could choose not to serve for a payment of $300.

On July 13th rioting flared across New York City. African-Americans were attacked and special venom was directed towards their Irish wives. Hart’s Alley itself was besieged and almost set afire.

The Amalgamationists fought back, pouring burning starch from the rooftops onto the rioters. The inter-racial couples held out until the Union Army arrived, but by then the free and easy social climate of the city had changed utterly.

In the following months over 50% of African-Americans moved out of downtown Manhattan and with them the Amalgamationists.

Where did they go? More than likely they were subsumed into African-American neighborhoods in Staten Island, Long Island and the new “colored community” forming up in the farmlands of Harlem.

Where once they were a vital presence, suddenly the Amalgamationists were gone. All that’s left behind is the occasional mention in dusty history books and the happy faces of our lost sisters dancing with their handsome partners in faded sketches from long vanished Five Points dancehalls.

Fat Cats, Cheap Suits, & Celtic Invasion

The music “biz” is hitting new lows – and that’s saying something. Where once fat men in cheap suits up on 57th Street ripped you off with a smile, now faceless young warriors “lease” your songs and pay fractions of a cent when one is played.

Still, you can sit around lamenting that you didn’t major in computer programming rather than Stratocasters, or you can find other ways of getting paid for making music.

While having a drink with Jon Birgé of Valley-Entertainment we hit upon an alternative: get a great song from each of a dozen fine acts and put out a compilation CD?

Ideally, the artists should be from the same field but have a different artistic sensibility. Since I seem to know every Irish-American band along with their maiden aunts, my gig was to choose the material – Jon to market the CD.

We set a couple of ground rules: bands would get a small advance and a royalty on each CD sold. The bands could also buy the CDs at wholesale cost and mark up accordingly.

Thus each band would be paid a royalty for every CD the eleven other bands sold, along with a first-class introduction to eleven other fan bases. In other words, the more you sell the more you make; the more anyone else sells, the more you make too! And if one song were to take off, then all twelve acts would be in the gravy.

The trick was to enlist the most interesting bands, and choose songs that would not only gel together but appeal to a wide audience. Hosting Celtic Crush on SiriusXM for almost eight years has given me some insight into the latter. I pride myself on finding great songs that have been overlooked in our teeming musical meat market.

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science. You just have to wade through an ocean of refined mediocrity to find a track that both sparks your interest and contains that ineffable something that will move a mass audience.

Thus I chose a number of overlooked local classics like “You’re So Beautiful” by Pat McGuire, “McClean Avenue” by Shilelagh Law, “22” by Celtic Cross, “Weekend Irish” by Barleyjuice, and “Sullivan’s Lake” by Garrahan’s Ghost.

To bring in a wider Celtic influence I included two Scottish gems: “Clash of the Ash” by Runrig, the best band you never heard of, and “Wacko King Hako” by Peatbog Faeries who put grooves under bagpipes that have to be heard to be believed.

I needed a couple of names for marquee value: Mike Scott gave me a brilliant unreleased version of a Waterboys classic, as did Hothouse Flowers. I tossed in the zany “Uncle Jim” by Black 47, which tells of Fr. Jim Hughes quixotic mission to East Belfast to convert the Rev. Ian Paisley.

The CD is called Celtic Invasion and also contains “The Irish Rover” by Blaggards, the kings of Houston, and “Buile Mo Chro√≠” by John Spillane, the bard of Cork City. Officially released last week, Celtic Invasion has been picking up radio play all over the country and selling like cold pints in August.
You can get a free download of my “intimate” thoughts on each band at www.celtic-invasion and if such ravings pique your fancy you can purchase the music in digital or CD form – no “leasing” necessary!

Will this idea succeed? I haven’t a clue, but it’s one hell of a compilation that crackles from first beat to last and will shake the dust from the ceiling at any gathering – St. Patrick’s Day or otherwise.

It’s already a success – Your Man Up In Pearl River says it’s the hottest thing since fried bread - and if it breaks even financially then we’ll round up another dozen acts and give them the same opportunity to beat the leasers!

And if it fails, well we tried to make a difference, and at the very worst I might still have a career ahead of me as a fat cat in a cheap suit up on 57th Street.