On Nov. 10, Troy’s ghastly early history will be told through a series of original murder ballads written by 10 Troy musicians who have been inspired by disasters, murders, tragedies, crimes and other dark spots of the city’s past.
“Collar City Crimes and Creepy Compositions” was organized by Zan & The Winter Folk’s Zan Strumfeld and Michael Gregg, who scoured Troy Public Library’s physical newspaper archive for the most disturbing bits of text they could find prior to 1925 (in order to avoid any upsetting recollections that might be too relatable for the small city’s residents).
Besides the organizing pair of artists, performers include their bandmate Will Brown, The Age, Blue Ranger, Greens, Girl Blue, Dark Honey, Justin Hendricks of Wurliday, Matt Plummer of Bendt and Raurri Jennings of Front Biz.
“There are some murders in there, some suicides, an arson, an avalanche, a flood, a blizzard, you know, calamities and disasters all the time,” Gregg said. “I am taking a scrapbook from 1870 off the wall and I’m flipping through it looking for murders but there’s all kinds of other crazy shit, like the article I am writing a song about: a chained bear that killed two different people in the same night at two different times.”
Strumfeld and Gregg gathered and typed out dozens of stories for the artists to choose from, finding inspiration and a quick laugh in the drastically different journalistic style going back to the early 19th century.
“Everybody was venerable when they died,” Strumfeld laughed. “And one of my favorite things was that they listed the highest taxpayers, all of their names and then all of the poor people who were in debt and didn’t pay their taxes. Or there was an article on how to be a good woman or wife and what makes a decent man, which I almost thought about writing about cause that’s very creepy.”
One artist actually took a bit from these outlying newspaper oddities—a random paragraph found by Strumfeld and Gregg on blushing—why it happens and what it does to the human form, based on the science of the early 20th century.
“I think that’s what gets lost sometimes when you’re using an internet database, you only find this stuff that is perfectly relevant to what your search was,” Gregg said.
The idea was for the “Collar City Crimes” show was inspired by Sarah Clark, who set up a similar event at the Albany Public Library in 2015, though it was specifically focused on murder. Strumfeld took part in the show as a solo artist.
“It took me a minute to say yes, then I really loved the challenge,” she said of the experience. “I wrote a song that I feel very proud of and only performed that one time. Then, earlier this year, I did a solo show [at Little Pecks], and I decided to just throw it out and sing it. A lot of people came up to me like, ‘What the hell is that?’
Strumfeld sang a ballad about a man who murdered his wife by choking and stabbing her to death with a kitchen fork. He then called his brother and confessed to the crime. When police arrived to the home, it was as if the man had blacked out. “Where is Mary?” he asked. “What am I doing here?”
“I wrote my song from his perspective and I kind of like let him come into me and it messed me up for a few weeks,” she said. “I was like really letting him take over and try to see his point of view of ‘Why? What would be the reasoning? Why would he kill his wife? it’s such a crazy human experience.”
The organizers admit a bit of hesitation about turning stories of death and disaster into song but point out the growing popular interest in true crime, its effect on the human psyche as well as the understanding of social norms and breaking points. We want to understand how and why someone could hurt us.
Gregg also points out that murder ballads were the original form of news sharing and storytelling before there was print. It’s a tradition that has seeped into the modern genres of country rock and hip hop over the course of musical history.
From a creative standpoint, the subject matter of her 2105 song provided Strumfeld with a particular challenge in taking on the intimate and horrifying experience of a stranger. It’s now become one she is excited to share with more artists.
She hopes the stories she and Gregg have provided to the group will help explore their individual songwriting abilities as well as showcase the strong, developing arts community in Troy.
“You get into the technicality of it, the arranging, and you have to step outside yourself,” she said.
And she hopes the audience will lose themselves a bit too. “I’m hoping for a lot of songs where clapping is paused after they’re done with the song, maybe just 10 seconds when we realize, ‘Oh we have to come back to reality.’”
“It’s definitely making us step out of our comfort zone and write about the stories that were actually not personal to our own lives, but were personal to someone else’s at a certain time and a certain period,” said Adrian Lewis, AKA The Age. “I’m excited because I get to use my mind and songwriting skills in a way that I wouldn’t, naturally.”
The original stories behind each song will be shared in a show pamphlet at the event so audience members can reference each artist’s interpretation of Troy history. It will also include information about the artists, including where you can find their “non-disastrous” original tunes.
Tickets for the show at Little Pecks are available now for $20, but Strumfeld warns they will sell out soon to preserve the intimacy of the performance.