Runners: Part 1 Demo

August 1, 2009

As I was leaving Boston, I decided that I wanted to write a longer, narrative piece for my band Agents of Marque, something we could work on recording from opposite coasts, something with both solo and harmony vocal parts, something that would really show off how much we’d gelled over the past two years. So my plan was to write a “mini-opera” in the mode of the classic Who track “A Quick One While He’s Away” (9 minutes long), which was the compositional predecessor to Tommy and thus to rock opera as we know it.

I decided that I would write a piece about blockade runners during the Civil War, specifically a British blockade runner whose ship is held hostage by a group of runaway slaves who demand to be taken to Haiti, the closest country under black rule. With that in mind, I picked up the naval classic Running the Blockade: A Personal Narrative of Adventures, Risks, and Escapes during the American Civil War (1896) by Thomas E. Taylor and read it on the epic train trip out to Seattle. Turns out, a large number of blockade runners were British, out of ports such as Liverpool, and escaped slaves did try to escape to Caribbean islands by hiding on blockade runners. So it started coming together. Finally, I decided to steal the main character from James Taylor’s “The Frozen Man” (New Moon Shine, 1991), a sailor from Liverpool born in 1843, and also several lines from the middle of that song where the character talks about himself.

So here’s the lyrics for the first part of the new song, with a demo you can listen to here:

my name is William James McPhee
I was born in 1843
raised in Liverpool by the sea…
and if you’re coming for me then you best forget it
I’m more than a match for any Federal frigate

I was just a little page boy
waiting for the day, boy
hoping somebody would call my name
then states got seceding
so the boss got to needing me
running that blockade

though I never gave a damn about slavery
or a fig about Lincoln and Jefferson Davy
my ship’s 120 x 20 x 12
packed full of powder and shoes and belts
trying to make Wilmington without getting shelled
God save the Queen, I’ll save myself!

though I never gave a damn about Jesus
just show me what good that’s done anyone
if he’s got anything to say about it
he can tell me when his kingdom come!

For the next part, where his ship gets held hostage by “contrabands,” I think I need to read some slave narratives. Maybe I’ll have to pick Julia’s brain on places to start, since she did a lot of research for Steal Away Jordan.

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