(This first appeared, with slight changes, on my Yorkscene.ca blog 9 Feb 2011)
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, where I’ve lived since 2006.
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. (Not much sex or drugs, though, from what I can tell, though there were rumours about their leader having a special relationship with a female member of the sect — and it wasn’t his wife.)
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, whom I also happen to know. 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 are the first two verses (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
Now the temple stands deserted,
peeling paint and broken windows
and the wind blows through the thistles growing wild beside the door
and cattle graze around it
their great brown eyes unheeding
that the Children of Peace are no more