Songwriting as storytelling—true storytelling—is not as common as it once was in folk and rock music. Singer-songwriters aim to tell stories, but the term “folk music” has come to be used to describe a sound rather than a tradition of passing on stories of the people through song. Audible Songs from Rockwood, the Polaris Prize longlisted album by Fiver (one of three identities The Highest Order’s Simone Schmidt uses on this project, depending on what work she is doing) is as refreshing a break from these constricting labels as any piece of folk music recorded in recent memory. In fact, calling the project an album doesn’t really do it justice. The songs were compiled using a technique Simone Carver (Schmidt’s fictional ethnomusicologist/researcher) dubs in the liner notes as “retroactive reconstruction”. This method of songwriting does not aim for cabin-in-the-woods style seclusion; it aims to immerse the listener in a historical time and place. Schmidt achieves this immersion through her brilliant use of a multi-tiered narrative, which finds her alias, Simon Carver, discovering archival documents that give voices to a silenced group of women imprisoned at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston, Ontario between 1856 and 1881.
Audible Songs From Rockwood is an album that needs to be both listened to and studied. From a musical perspective, these are beautifully arranged folk songs—which Carver notes are, musically speaking, historically inaccurate, given the time period in question—that rely on strummed and fingerpicked bluegrass banjos, fiddles, upright bass, and the occasional string flourish. Schmidt keeps the mood appropriate for the subject matter. Her voice is raw and dry, often sounding as vulnerable and powerful as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice on It’s My Way. “Yonder White Mare” features no instrumentation and the weight of Schmidt’s voice is palpable.
There are some incredible musical moments on Audible Songs…: the fiddle solo in the waltzing “Haldimand County” and the swirling fingerpicking buoyed by bellowing cello in “Hair of the Dead”;“Worship the Sun (Not the Golden Boy) features a haunting woodwind instrument (identified simply as “wind” in the liner notes) that serves as just that: a breeze off of Lake Ontario sending shivers down the spine of those who get to re-witness Toronto’s last public hanging.
The real triumph of Audible Songs… is the way Carver is able to tell the stories of the women at Rockwood through a new—or at least underused—historical lens. The grand historical narrative of the founding of Canada (and of most things) is predominantly focused on the contributions and stories of European men. Given the times, this isn’t a surprise. Conversely, Audible Songs… explores an anti-colonial and feminist view that is far more important and interesting from a contemporary standpoint. Carver unearths the trauma experienced by women forced to leave their homelands and relocate to Turtle Island; the impossible and demoralizing conditions women faced once they arrived here (especially given what they had been used to); the sexist accusations of hysteria and insanity; and the violence that defines the early years of colonization all with great detail, empathy, and care. Schmidt, via her Fiver moniker, then takes that research—complete with footnotes, maps, and primary sources—and weaves it all into powerful songs. Cultural critic and author Andrea Warner wrote that listening to this album feels like Schmidt is “rearranging” her bones. Schmidt’s ability to do that for both listener and subject is a powerful skill, and certainly unparalleled in modern songwriting.
Audible Songs from Rockwood is a rare album that gives me chills as I listen and is just as likely to give me chills when I think about its existence. It’s important for our understanding of history, for the women who were sent to Rockwood, and for its ability to inspire the listener to educate themselves on other persecuted peoples whose stories have been lost to the annals of history. Schmidt, as well as her aliases, have given credence to a cherry picked line from “Hair of the Dead”, which sums up the entire project for me: “All that’s lost in good time will be found again”. The spirits of the women of Rockwood live on in these songs, and they are more free than ever because of them.