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Josephine on Celluloid History Songs

During our HOMEwarming weekend, singer-songwriter Josephine will perform a series of specially commissioned songs against a backdrop of archive footage showing Northerners at leisure. Here, she talks about writing the music. 

I’m delighted to be performing Celluloid History Songs at HOME. It’s a wonderful chance to revisit an inspiring time of creativity. Last year, as a trailblazer for HOME’s fledgling Music & Film Project, I was asked to take part in Everything Everything’s artists’ residency, Chaos to Order, to celebrate the opening of Manchester Central Library. This involved writing and performing a suite of original songs in response to silent films from the North West Film Archive, a project which eventually took on its own identity as Celluloid History Songs.

The North West Film Archive is a place full of memories that people thought were worth preserving: family holidays, community carnivals, pageants, pantomimes and parades. Those images triggered a desire to create something honest and genuine. I wanted to do them justice.

I took a few afternoons to explore the silent collection. It was tempting to select films that would be easier to write to, those with existing narrative structures. But that wouldn’t have yielded the honest and instant response that I was hoping for. I decided to watch the films randomly. I played any silent footage I found. If someone felt it was worth recording, then it was worth a watch. With my notepad on my lap I responded in notes, poems, brainstorms and dictaphone messages. I didn’t worry about what sense it all made, only that these were my authentic responses, flowing directly from the films.

A theme began to reoccur. Leisure. The amateur filmmakers of the 1920s; fathers filming family holidays; scenes of Manchester’s long-forgotten ballrooms. The films all depicted people enjoying themselves once the working day was done. There were images of people spending the last coffers in the kitty. People trying to brush away the cobwebs of daily restraints. Here, my notes to a film titled Holidays, Trains and Traffic, 1926, hint vaguely at the ideas that were forming: ‘The lamppost is a sentry, immovable / Waves provide the last chance / To enjoy the merry making of / The first and the final dance.’

After a few days in the archive I began to set the collection of words to music. The songs Out of Doors and Flirtation Waltz were inspired by the dancers in the film The Piccadilly Restaurant, 1924. The upright figures whirl around one another, wanting to break loose, but seeming unable to ignore the strictures of formality. Leisure, perceptibly restricted by decorum. Later, the song Little Boy was inspired by the rural backdrop of pre-industry, which seemed to slow the progression towards modernity in some of the films.

The films and songs of Celluloid History Songs are particularly relevant to the inaugural year at HOME. A key theme running through the artistic programme this year is ‘transactions of desire’, a notion experienced in the lyrics of Little Boy. The balance between rural tradition and industrial progress is, in the end, a transaction. It is an agreement that one will not take too much from the other to reach its desired goal. Of course, we all know what can happen in transactions concerning desire: jealousy, protectiveness, anger, and eventually, estrangement. We’re left with two opposites fighting for prime position. As more greenfield sites are replaced by apartment blocks, we must ask: can the rural landscape ever win back the ground that it has lost within this transaction?

It is also wonderful to feel connections forming between Celluloid History Songs and the first play to be staged at HOME, Simon Stephens’ The Funfair. In this play, a funfair provides the backdrop for exploring a crisis of capitalism. This might prove to be an uncomfortable balance between pleasure and social consciousness. In parallel, during Celluloid History Songs you’ll see repeating scenes of ladies on a fairground slide from the film Blackpool, 1929. The song I wrote to accompany these scenes is called Shameful Sensation. As the ladies’ skirts are pulled up and sideways, revealing underskirts and knobbly knees, they bashfully attempt to retain their modesty. Like The Funfair, pleasure and social consciousness are uneasy bedfellows. The funfair will become a scene of regret and embarrassment as well as a place of wonder.

Josephine performs Celluloid History Songs on Mon 25 May. The event is part of our HOMEwarming weekend, which runs from Thu 21 – Mon 25 May. The footage from the film, drawn from the North West Film Archive held at Manchester Metropolitan University, has been edited by filmmaker Kim May of Asta Films.