The New Historian

In her latest album, Simone Schmidt sings the forgotten stories of women incarcerated a Kingston mental asylum—and questions who has the right to rewrite history

Photo by Community Archives
Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

It’s a drizzly Friday evening in June, and it feels like a corner of Toronto’s arts scene has been sucked into a timewarp. About 100 show-goers, all of whom seem to know one another, have convened at a midtown Unitarian church. Friends congregate around the dry bar and sip ginger beer out of mason jars, while a man in the corner chimes out a jaunty soundtrack on a baby grand piano.

The lights dim and the music stops. Simone Schmidt enters in a modest black blazer and black pants. Though physically unassuming, the singer fills the room with her quiet intensity and begins the set a capella: “Yonder white mare with her hoof in the hole . . . the rider must leave her to struggle alone.” The rich, husky twang of her voice shuts down any remaining chatter. “There stands the mare who will ride no more.”

Before the spell wears off, Schmidt explains that the song she just sang is written from the perspective of a woman incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston, Ontario, sometime between 1856 and 1881. The narrator speaks of an injured horse, but she also speaks of herself, a domestic worker imprisoned for epilepsy, an ailment then considered by the burgeoning psychiatric field to be a form of delusion.

“But,” muses Schmidt, “isn’t it funny the way the definition of insanity changes based on who’s in power and what is convenient to them?”

That question of perspective is the unspoken backdrop to all songs on Schmidt’s Polaris Prize–longlisted album, Audible Songs From Rockwood (out now on Idée Fixe), recorded with the Lonesome Ace Stringband under the solo moniker Fiver. A collection of semi-fictional songs written from the points of view of real women imprisoned in the institution before and after Confederation, the album gives voice to people who have rarely been able to tell their own stories: inmates deemed too dangerous for other prisons or asylums, women who couldn’t or wouldn’t handle the rigours of “women’s work,” and British and Irish settlers who were lured over with the promise of a New World but found themselves in squalid and unforgiving conditions.

The songs display a radical empathy for people at the margins of society. They deal with isolation, depression, agency, gender, power, and the criminalization of mental health—themes that certainly aren’t limited to the 19th century. Schmidt was drawn to the women at Rockwood and wondered what stories they had to tell, what songs they had to write. She became fixated.

But telling the story of Canadian history isn’t as easy as going to the library. For Schmidt it required dedicated research, an artist’s eye for character, and, trickiest of all, a remarkable amount of self-reflection. The telling of history, after all, is an act of power—one that requires authority, confidence, and resources. Not all records and archives are balanced or reliable, and not all characters in a story have been accurately or adequately represented. So which voices do Schmidt’s songs amplify, and whose do they leave out? Does the final product challenge or reinforce power structures? And how can we judge the album’s final historicity?

As a way of grappling with those challenges, the eleven tracks of Audible Songs From Rockwood come with thirty pages of impeccably sourced liner notes that frame, contextualize, and interrogate the text. While a less thoughtful songwriter might have approached the project in a more straightforward way, Schmidt follows its disparate threads until they tangle and knot. As a result, Rockwood is historical fiction that questions the concepts of both “historical” and “fiction.”

If that concept sounds especially resonant now, it’s because Canada, too, has faced a difficult self-examination this year, during the 150th anniversary of Confederation. When we celebrate the country’s history, we have to wonder exactly what, and who, we’re celebrating. What are we leaving out? Those aren’t easy questions to answer—which is why many avoid asking them—but they also feel totally necessary if Canada is to avoid again getting swept up into its own cultural amnesia.

Simone Schmidt is not a trained historian. She didn’t even finish university. As an activist, however, Schmidt has fine-tuned an interest in the history of revolutions and uprisings: Cuban history, Maoism, the liberation of Black Americans. Canadian history seemed boring by comparison.

“That’s because generally, Canadian history is not relayed truthfully in schools,” Schmidt tells me. “Most people my age never learned about the international Indigenous diplomacy that pre-dated European arrival on Turtle Island, let alone the treaties that Europeans entered into with different Indigenous Nations that we are often asked to uphold.”

Schmidt’s education of Canada came later, by travelling the country as a musician in the psychedelic country bands One Hundred Dollars and The Highest Order—embedding herself in artistic communities, meeting other musicians and writers, and reading. Lots of reading. A dedicated prison abolitionist, Schmidt stumbled upon an article in the Kingston Whig-Standard about the Rockwood Asylum in 2011. She was shocked to learn that, in 1856 and for the next eleven years before the institution was actually built, women deemed criminally insane were held in stables once used to house horses kept by the land’s former occupant.

An image formed in her head of a woman confined to a nine-by-five-foot stable, sleeping on a straw mattress, a barred peephole her only source of light. Schmidt picked up a guitar and wrote “Stable Song” from the perspective of that imagined inmate, describing with first-person urgency the muffled sounds of the women in the other stalls, and the powerful numbing of the morphine the guards shot her with nightly to keep her from kicking through her own. The song quickly became a staple of Schmidt’s solo shows, as well as performances with the veteran Toronto clawhammer banjo player Chris Coole (who plays in The Lonesome Ace Stringband, and on Rockwood).

So in 2014, Schmidt applied for a grant and embarked on a research project that, unbeknownst to her, would stretch on for three intense years. Schmidt quickly learned that telling the stories of the women at Rockwood wouldn’t be an easy task. “I was unrested and obsessed and always with it,” she remembers. “And I suppose I was isolated.”

Every three months, she’d drive two and half hours from Toronto to Kingston to get a sense of what it might feel like for one of the women kept there. The edifice itself has been boarded up since 1997, but that didn’t stop Schmidt from trying to get inside, first through official channels and then, at a loss for options, by attempting to bribe a security guard. She was told the asbestos and animal fowl on the property required anyone entering to wear a hazmat suit.

During the same period, she would routinely take the subway an hour to spend whole days in the Archives of Ontario, losing herself in case files from Rockwood. She had to submit a special request for the documents, so in the meantime she explored microfiches of the superintendent’s diaries (“a real piece of work,” Schmidt says) and filled herself in on the historical context.

But, as with her early education, Schmidt suspected she wasn’t seeing the whole story. “The case files were sparse and they were all written by people in authority,” she says. “Knowing what I do about people in power and what they can and can not see, what works to their advantage to record, what could I really learn about the people at Rockwood from those accounts?”

The more she learned, the more she knew there was left to learn, not just about Rockwood but about Canadian history in general. “[It’s] documents written by different arms of the settler colonial apparatus, judges, British Governors, police, that inherited their biases. So, I became skeptical of the historical record I was handling.”

The fact that Audible Songs From Rockwood is in its own way a historical record is not lost on Simone Schmidt. Nor is the fact that the type of musical anthropology she chose as the format of the album comes with its own set of cultural biases.

Music’s most famous folklorist and archivist, Alan Lomax, is often credited with “discovering” and preserving such American folk and blues luminaries as Lead Belly and Robert Johnson. He’d travel across the Jim Crow South, recording and collecting songs, striving to capture “raw” and “authentic” performances on front porches and, sometimes, in prisons. He saw folk traditions as an accurate and objective measure of culture. But his neutrality has been questioned by other musicologists and historians: How authentic were his recordings if he was selecting, or often times imposing, their contexts, especially when his status as a white man gave him privileges many of the black musicians could never have? How could a singular recording, imbued with all its temporal circumstances and biases, be generalized to create a complete taxonomy of expression?

Rockwood’s packaging and notes, not to mention its gorgeous old time and bluegrass musicianship, is like a lost Smithsonian anthology. The songs are performed under the pseudonym Fiver Fines (who interprets the “found” songs of the inmates), and the liner notes are written in the voice of a fictional ethnomusicologist named Simone Carver. It’s in those liner notes that Schmidt does most of the contextual heavy lifting, framing the songs around the information in the case files, plus the history and geography of the institution itself.

Rockwood was built on land with which the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg (Mississauga), Haudenosaunce, and Wendat First Nations have deep relationships—and to which, many argue, they have legitimate claims. The Crawford Purchase, as it’s known, gave the land to the British, but even the official records are filled with inconsistencies about how much land was purchased and how it was agreed upon.

“It seemed crucial to check the truth of the historical record written by British Generals against any source I could find from the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt wrote to a number of academics to see if they could point her in the right direction or suggest secondary sources. Many of those emails went unreturned. Schmidt acknowledges it might have had something to do with her approach. “I have no sense of academic propriety, since I dropped out at nineteen,” she shrugs.

It was a fellow artist who provided some of the most valuable assistance: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Schmidt met the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg poet and scholar at a mutual friend’s birthday and sheepishly emailed her about the Crawford Purchase. Simpson contacted Elder Doug Williams of Curve Lake, who then gave Schmidt permission to quote Simpson’s transcription of his oral account in the liner notes—“which, no surprise, differs greatly from how it’s explained in the historical record and on plaques around Kingston.”

“People say it is controversial,” Williams is quoted as saying. “It’s not controversial. They wanted all the land and they took it. Our perspective on the treaty was never considered.”

A similar story informs “Haldimand County,” a song that takes place on the backdrop of the Haldimand Tract, a twelve-mile-wide tract of land granted sovereignly to the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunce, but occupied illegally by settlers to this day.

When land claims have entered the courts, judgement has often hinged upon the admissibility of oral histories. In a few notable recent cases, oral testimony has been allowed, but those “unconventional forms of evidence” are still subject to challenges based on “hearsay” that come from British legal traditions Indigenous people do not share.

Combining oral and written accounts in Rockwood, Schmidt uses her alias, Carver, to both fill in the historical context of Rockwood and complicate it. By providing alternate perspectives, and giving voice to the characters without the power to record them, Carver’s notes destabilize the stories of Rockwood and, by extension, Canada.

Though the distance between Simone Schmidt and her alter ego Simone Carver often seems like a short one, with Carver oscillating between formal academic voice and the same pensive, self-questioning style Schmidt writes in in our email interview, the fictional persona shields Schmidt from being implicated in reinforcing the colonial lens of the sources it draws from. It’s a complicated confluence of histories and fictions, but, as art, it’s protected from thorny academic questions that might plague a historian or social scientist.

But is that responsible? Schmidt says she managed to avoid questions of appropriation in the songs, at least, because, according to Schmidt’s research, no one imprisoned at Rockwood was Indigenous. “What I worried more about was erasure of Indigenous presence by omission,” she says. Since the songs are all sung by settlers, they’re privy to their own structures of power and colonialism.

“These are explicitly settler-colonial blues, and while they are not just, and they are not admirable, they are borne of the inherent violence of settling Turtle Island,” Schmidt says.

“Some of the settlers are entitled,” she explains. “They have delusions of owning property, struggle to reconcile the idea of the New World full of opportunity that was sold to them by their husbands or the Upper Canadian government, they forget the violence they’ve enacted.”

The empathy of the songs bumps up against Schmidt’s critique of settler colonialism, patriarchy, the stigma around mental illness, and the prison industrial complex. The album feels immediate and warm, like a dusty old vinyl you find yourself getting lost in. The songs stand alone as impressionistic folk nuggets, but the tales of the women draw you in deeper. And the deeper you go, the harder it becomes to fight your way back out. In a way, that’s the point.

“In scrutinizing our own institutions, the fraudulence and torture at their roots, we might, among other things, rid ourselves of any sense of superiority—the epistemological racism that underscores so much brutality in contemporary settler colonial social services, carceral institutions, and health care agencies can be challenged,” says Schmidt.

And if that applies to Rockwood, it also applies more generally to Canadian history.

“To me it’s important to destabilize the dominant Canadian historical perspective,” says Schmidt. “Most pressingly, because if settlers come to understand how the land was stolen in the past we can position ourselves truthfully, recognize ongoing patterns and methods of dispossession of the land, and hopefully we can stop acting so entitled to pillaging it in the future. I do believe that’s the only way people can survive.”

“In shaking our heads at Rockwood, we can give up the idea that we’ve ever known what’s best, and learn to listen.”

Richard Trapunski
Richard Trapunski (@trapunski) is a writer and editor who has contributed to the Globe and Mail, Now Magazine, Chart Attack, and Hazlitt.