The Story behind the Song... James Watt 1812

I thought I'd begin a new series of blog posts about what inspired the songs I write and giving some insight into the way I write my songs. So here goes... 

For those of you who know me or have chatted to me at gigs or events you will know that I love to write a song with a story.  It can be about a person who has inspired me or caused me to think; or about a situation I've experienced myself or read about from history.  Most of my songs are narrative songs and they cross over quite neatly into storytelling.

This particular song: James Watt 1812 was written in response to a songwriting brief set whilst I was doing a Masters in Music at UWS in Ayrshire.  It was for Glasgow's 'Steam to Green' to celebrate developments in technology that are ECO friendly and ground breaking.  Not being an engineering connoisseur, I hadn't heard of James Watt before this assignment was set.  I duly took myself up to Greenock to walk along the river near where James Watt was born and to seek out inspiration.

My inspiration actually came the more I dug into the history of Watt's revised engine and the different industries it was sold to as part of the Industrial Revolution and streamlining employment in factories.  I discovered that in 1812 a law was passed stating that anybody who sabotages Watt's engine could be hung.  Subsequently 7 textile factory workers were put to death after they lost their jobs and fought back against the machine that they felt was responsible. 

Interestingly the law was passed in the House of Lords by the owners of the businesses being affected, and one of the only people to stand up to the vote was Lord Byron who aside from his poetry gets a mixed press in the history books.

To explain some of the other themes within the song; the flow of the river is so linked to Watt because he was the son of a shipbuilder.  Watt's father appears to be a very understanding man from my research.  He fully supported his son leaving the family business and pursuing his own dreams in London.  And when James Watt returned to Scotland only to be refused work by the guild, he continued to follow his dreams by taking a job at the University. 

Watt's success seems to hinge partly on the partnerships he made.  Watt teamed up with two business men over the course of his life.  This allowed his inventions and discoveries to be patented and sold within a business arena that Watt shied away from.  It makes me think of the music industry and the difference between writing songs or playing gigs, compared with getting booked and navigating all of the non-music aspects of the industry that are now so vital.

Watt was survived by his son, who he had a close relationship to.  In the final verse of the song I sing about how Watt feels about passing his legacy on and looking to the future.  Watt was a thoughtful and moral man.  He had the idea for how to improve the steam engine on a Sunday and waited to work on this idea until Monday because he was respecting the sabbath.  The idea came when he was on one of his long walks beside the river and when I imagine Watt, I always see him on a river bank in deep and methodical thought.

You can watch the video of James Watt 1812 in the video section of this website.  Funnily enough, when I played it to the 'Steam to Green' people, they felt it was too political and not suited to the brief, which may be truth.  But for me, it's a folk song that fits completely with both my style of writing and reason for writing songs.  It also goes down well with the more technical audience members in juxtaposition to a song like 'Women of History' which is loved by crafters and creatives (not that you can't be both of course!).  Whenever I play the song live I learn something new from audience members who relate wholly to James Watt and his way of thinking.  I'm always impressed by the amount of knowledge people keep in their heads ready to share when some upstart songwriter writes about a feat of engineering!

I hope this gives you a bit of an insight into the inspiration behind the song.  Please do comment; I hope to write about my songs in a way that answers your questions and satisfies your curiosity, so let me know which aspects most interest you.  As always I look forward to playing for you at one of my gigs and mostly to meeting you and talking about the stories that make up a life. 
See you there, Hols