1889, a concept album, pt. 1

(author’s note: compiling the work presented here has been a labor of love, in which the labor often overpowered the love. it is the author’s sincerest hope that this work be met favorably by its audience as a snippet of a life long past [or so we believe]. for the reader’s convenience, the author has provided links to the original musical numbers)


track 1 – welcome to new york


the inaugural track opens optimistically, with all the crescendo of a sunrise in G major, as our heroine finds herself newly awash in buzz of new york city. like many young, ambitious folks from the midwest, she has moved to the city to escape the “fret, fret and work” of a rural existence. a new life beckons…

welcome to new york
horace greeley’s seething
welcome to new york welcome to new york
welcome to new york
you just had to move east
welcome to new york welcome to new york

she is filled with hope as she places her scant possessions around her small room in the boarding house, tucking her farm girl heart safely in a drawer. a new dance hall has just opened down the street, where there lurk more eligible young bachelors than exist in her entire county back home. only, it’s not the rhythm of the band that makes the new soundtrack of her life, but the clicktey-clack of hundreds of sewing machines in close quarters as she dreams of a job in a department store.

welcome to new york
here’s your sewing machine
welcome to new york welcome to new york
welcome to new york
nothing here’s for free
welcome to new york welcome to new york

city life is an adventure she’s never experienced before. independence fills her veins like the heat of a new love. for a brief moment, she wonders if she has become a character in a hamlin garland story. would her parents, with their “true rural minds,” recognize her now? how quickly would her own hands reacclimate to the mud and hay? she realizes now the fortune of her escape to the city. she is a new woman, and there isn’t anything (anything, anything) she would change…

track 2 – blank space


the eerie, dripping beats that introduce this track lead the inquisitive listener straight into the halls of women’s suffrage. the modest home of an aging spinster sets the stage, as young women file through the door, white sashes draped neatly over their shoulders. a newcomer hesitates at the approach, when, suddenly, a hunched figure appears before her, dressed in a pair of old-fashioned bloomers. a wrinkled hand extends…

nice to meet you, i’m susan
i could show you incredible things
marching to demand our rights
saw you there and i thought
“oh, my god, look at that girl!
she looks like she’ll change the world!”
suffrage now! wanna join?

the newcomer steps inside the house and is astounded by the women that surround her. they are nothing like the papers say–ugly, barren, nasty women–rose gardens full of thorns. they speak with an assuredness and clarity she was never taught in college. the flourish of passion marks their words with a sense of urgency. they have exchanged the cherry lips and big bouquets of false femininity for pure enlightenment.

raised voices, coats and signs
we won’t tolerate this tyranny
ain’t it funny, rumors fly
they say we’ve embraced insanity

but if that’s all they’ve got
i’m sure i’ll see my first ballot
grab those pamphlets and my hand
we can make the bad guys good if we take a stand

quickly, our newcomer is inducted into the movement and learns the faces of true bravery and perseverance. state by state, the other women are hopeful, they will have their victories. despite the curse of defeat and the threat of arrest, they are confident: small actions make great ripples…

sure, this could take forever
you may lose your good name
you can tell us when it’s over
if the vote was worth the pain
got a long list of opponents
they’ll tell you we’re insane
’cause you know we ride bicycles
and we fight for change

boys listen to your woes like it’s torture, the more experienced crusaders repeat time and time again. it is no longer enough to rely on men to vote for women, like that ever worked in the first place. (they point to congress banning abolitionist women’s petitions, decades before the younger women were born.) this struggle has lasted through generations of beaten wives and broken widows. it is up to the next generation to fulfill this country’s promise of no taxation without representation.

’cause we’re old and we need you
you’ll take up our banner

it will leave you breathless
and full of new vigor
got a long list of opponents
they’ll tell you we’re insane
but hist’ry’s got a blank space, baby,
and you’ll write your name.

track 3 – style

Camille Clifford.jpg

the sounds of a calm beach float delicately towards the consciousness as a young woman dreams peacefully of a recent vacation on the coast. the drifting quiet of the water is slowly replaced by an urgent drumming beat, as she awakens from her reverie with a start.

i open my wardrobe and start to cry
long skirts
won’t help me ride out on my bicycle
harper’s bazaar, oh, help me keep up with these changing fashion tides (fashion tides)

she flips through the magazine with increased anxiety. everything she owns is suddenly wrong–even her fluffy bangs have been replaced by hairstyles so loose and free. in the dramatic montage that follows, our heroine proceeds to ready herself to step out with her beaux, who, unbeknownst to her, is anxiously reshaping is mustache.

he’s like an outdoors sportsman modern Don Juan
and i’ve got that big hair, big hat thing goin’ on
and when we both step outside, everyone will agree
we’ve entered the gay nineties
we’ve entered the gay nineties

he’s got that cropped hair, mustache, four-in-hand tie
and i’ve got those big sleeves, corset hips that don’t lie
and when we both step outside, everyone will agree
we’ve entered the gay nineties
we’ve entered the gay nineties

the pair walk arm in arm as he escorts her straight home after the dance. however, the music suggests that her dark mood hasn’t dissipated, and he asks if something is weighing on her mind. she drops his arm and looks away. she does not speak until…

so it goes
my hem’s been raised; my skirts don’t graze the road
walks me home
lights are on; i notice his waistcoat
i say: i heard, oh, that you’ve been out and about with some gibson girl (some gibson girl)
he says: what you’ve heard is true, but, hon, that gibson girl is you
and i said: well, we all change our clothes with the times

and with that clarification, the chorus of the tune returns to lift the mood. it’s hard to imagine such fashionable love ever going out of style.

track 6 – shake it off

IBW_u chicago porrait_183994

Ida B. Wells (courtesy of University of Chicago Library)

a bright, bouncy beat soars through the final track on the first half of this musical journey through an era. don’t let the tune fool you. as ida b. wells boldly takes the stage, she assumes a strong stance with her hands on her hips and her feet planted squarely on the floor. her eyes burn bright as she sings truth…

my pigment is my “shame”
so i can’t ride this train

that’s what people say (mhm)
that’s what people say
my articles are wrong
so i can’t keep my job
at least that’s what people say (mhm)
that’s what people say

these are no lies. having been forcibly removed from a train car and fired for speaking her mind, ida b. wells may well have shrunk back into the safety of silence, but there is no time for a listener to contemplate this potential life, as ida sings on…

but i keep writing
can’t stop, won’t stop fighting

it’s like i’ve got this fire in my mind
saying, ida, you do what’s right

as she so eloquently puts it, no matter what she does, the racists will hate (hate, hate, hate, hate). the women on the suffrage line will continue to play (play, play, play, play) around the issues facing their colored sisters. weak men only fake (fake, fake, fake, fake, fake, fake) a communion of ideals, but ida’s stronger than all that.

i never miss a beat,
investigating on the street
people can’t seem to see (oh no)
what they don’t want to see
i’m crusading on my own
this movement’s only gonna grow
and that’s what they don’t know (oh no)
that’s what they don’t know

her friends are murdered on the street by an angry mob. her safety is continually threatened. with nerves of steel, she confronts the storm with power and grace.

cause the racists gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
and the women gonna play, play, play, play, play
baby, i’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
i shake it off, i shake it off
weak men are gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
but this storm is gonna break, break, break, break, break
baby, i’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
i shake it off, i shake it off

(author’s note: thank you for indulging this odd obsession. with luck, the next installation of this exhausting project will include a mystical melody about nellie bly’s global trek, a little ditty about andrew carnegie, and a musical tribute to jane addams. stay tuned!)


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