Yes, I’m doing research for a song. Because not all songs are about the writer’s navel-gazing feelings, or about love, that bottomless pit of inspiration (and too often cliché) for songwriters.
I love writing songs on unusual topics and songs that tell stories. If they tell a Canadian story, even better. So I’m now writing one about the Sharon Temple (www.sharontemple.ca), a unique heritage site in the north of York Region.
The temple, completed in 1832, was built by a fascinating sect called the Children of Peace. You could say they were the first hippies: they valued peace, social justice and equality; they lived together cooperatively in one village; they held feasts where everyone shared food; they wore colourful clothing when they marched in processions; and music and song were a big part of their worship.
When I visited the temple last summer I thought maybe there was a song there – after all, I’d already written one about the Thomas Foster Memorial near Uxbridge, another striking building with a poignant tale behind it.
So I began by reading a book about the sect written by the curator of the temple, John McIntyre (a fellow Yorkscene.com blogger). Then I wondered: would I simply recount the basic facts, how Pennsylvanian David Willson came to Upper Canada looking for land, joined a Quaker meeting, and then had visions that led him to break away from the Quakers to found the Children of Peace and build the temple? That was too straightforward.
One photograph I’d seen at Sharon haunted me: the abandoned temple, paint peeled away, windows broken, with cows grazing obliviously around it. I kept wondering what it must have felt like to see the temple in that sorry state while recalling its glory days. So I invented a very old woman, the last surviving member of the sect, to be the narrator of my song. I sent my first-draft lyrics to John. He told me that the last member had indeed been a woman, Emily McArthur (1837-1924); she’d been part of the sect for decades and had in fact seen the temple looking as it had in the photograph!
I knew then I’d found my way into the song. Here’s the first verse (note the village of Sharon was originally named Hope by the Children of Peace):
my name is Emily McArthur
I am old but I remember
when our meeting flourished, one in spirit and in mind
and we named our village Hope
and thus we lived in Hope and prospered
but now I am alone, I am the last one of my kind
In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the other writing challenges I’m facing with this song and how John McIntyre is helping me sort them out.
For more about the history of Sharon Temple:
Marie-Lynn Hammond is a co-founder of Stringband, a seminal Canadian folk group, and a critically acclaimed songwriter living in York Region. In past lives she’s written plays and magazine articles and hosted national CBC radio shows. In between working on two new CDs, she freelances as an editor of both fiction and nonfiction. http://www.marielynnhammond.com/