Witch Hunt - history told in music, sound, and story
The history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials told through music and story-telling in a format recalling an old time radio drama with a modern experimental prog-rock twist. Witch Hunt borrows freely from original sources of information from the time of the trials such as letters, books, poems, transcriptions of the trials themselves, as well as melodies from the Puritan hymn books. The music is highly original art-rock ranging from soft ambient soundscapes to heavy power riffs with many other stops along the way. The narrator provides a story teller voice that weaves a historical thread throughout each episode. Witch Hunt is conceived, written, and produced by Brian O'Connell, who records and produces the show, playing a wide variety of instruments and voice parts. Brian is a well known bassist and composer in New England who has performed with: Uncle Sammy, Gordon Stone, Gary Backstrom, Dave Brunyak, Interminable, and Rev Tor's Steal Your Peach Band. In 2012 Brian debuted his rock opera Over The Line, a Jungian journey through modern consciousness, for a successful series of performances in Boston. Brian O'Connell - voice, 6 and 12 string guitars, bass, touch guitar, sintir, keys, synth, percussion Mike Harmon - drums, cymbals, percussion
Artist Statement for
Witch Hunt - history told in music, sound, and story
by Brian O’Connell
Witch Hunt is podcast which was originally conceived as a multimedia rock opera based on the widely known historical events surrounding the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. I have been researching and working on this project since September 2018 and was working towards debuting it in October, 2020 in Salem, MA. It was originally conceived as a live performance, but with the onset of the ongoing Covid crisis I have reworked the project and have turned it into a podcast and recording project. Equal parts art-rock musical, alternative theater, and history lecture, Witch Hunt is meant to educate, entertain, and challenge. Most importantly it draw comparisons between the world of 1690’s New England and those of today, especially how communities can turn on each other and how they can heal. In this piece I combine my extensive experience as a musician with my role a a history teacher. This is the second theatrical rock opera style work that I have developed.
The Salem Witch Trials is something that everyone knows about and responds too with an opinion or reaction. The mention of the topic causes people to narrow their eyes and look off into an imaginary horizon, where they see a kernel of darkness woven into our national historical journey. I want to encourage people’s interest in the topic, excite their imagination, educate them about the complexities of it, and show the seriousness of the events and how they stand as a warning to us today. My intention is for a historically accurate telling featuring primary source quotes, with elements of fantasy exposing the deep psychological aspects of the story, and moments of objective examination from the perch of our present-day hindsight to explore the topic further.
While I always found this topic fascinating, I began to be more deeply interested in it around 2015 as I was studying early American history for a graduate degree in social studies education. I had visited Salem as a boy with my family and the story stayed with me and when I rediscovered it later in life the complex layers drew me in. I was spellbound by the descriptions of the supernatural, shocked by the breakdown in social order and repression that ensued, and fascinated by the political and economic situation surrounding the events. My natural tendency towards integration of ideas led me to combine my image intensive story telling style of history teaching with my talents in music and desire to compose and create in a more in depth and intriguing performance situations.
The music is heavily influenced by progressive and art-rock, at times folky, with pop and classical influences, but also including very heavy and experimental elements illustrating the story’s darker themes. Music that New England Puritans sang in the 1690’s from the “Bay Prayer Book” is incorporated in form of church hymns, especially as a rondo with the hymns as a transition between scenes, similar to the “promenade” in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Puritan period instruments are used like flute, recorder, violin, and 6 and 12-string guitar acoustic guitars. There are also modern band instruments like drums, electric guitar and bass, piano and synthesizer. Songs are sung by combinations of 1 to 10+ singers.
The music of my first rock opera, Over the Line, was compared by listeners to Frank Zappa, Phish, Pat Metheny, and Todd Rundgren. In terms of musical pieces combining instrumental passages, singing, and spoken narration some of my biggest influences are:
Igor Stravinsky – “The Soldier’s Tale”
Frank Zappa – “Gregory Peccary” and “Billy The Mountain”
Charles Mingus – “The Clown”
Genesis – Peter Gabriel’s song intros and costumed acting circa 1970-1975
Phish – “Gamehenge”
Utah Phillips – albums with Ani Difranco
The central themes in Witch Hunt are old ways vs. new ways, projecting fear onto outsiders, neighbor against neighbor, and scapegoating, with investigations into the role of girls, women, and slaves in Puritan society. These are presented as a lens in which we can meditate on some of the most important issues we face today: fake news, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, breakdown of societal institutions, PTSD, patriarchy, and existential dread. The music provides a dreamlike sense of deep exploration, the acting and primary source quotations bring the real story to life, and the objective narrative viewpoint with an academic perspective bring the Salem Witch Trials into a modern frame of reference. My goal is to inspire the audience to look more deeply into the past and present and to recognize the warning signs of a society in a state of decline and what can happen in that situation.
To hear episodes go to this site or check your favorite podcast streaming service.
Selected Historical Sources
"Entertaining Satan" by John Putnam Demo, Oxford University Press, 1982
"Satan and Salem" by Nejamin C. Ray, University of Virginia Press, 2015
"Six Women of Salem" by Marilynne K. Roach, Da Capo Press, 2003
"A Delusion of Satan" by Frances Hill, Da Capo Press, 1995
"The Story of the Salem Witch Trials" by Nryan F. Le Beau, Prentece-Hall, 1998
"The Witches" by Stacy Schiff, 2015
"Salem Possessed" by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Harvard University Press, 1974
"A Storm of Witchcraft" by Emerson W. Baker, Oxford University Press, 2015
"In the Devil's Snare" by Mary Beth Norton, Vintage Books, 2002
"Death in Salem" by Diane E. Foulds, GPP, 2010
"The Devil in the Shape of a Woman" by Carol F. Karlsen, W.W. Norton, 1987
"Witchcraze" by Anne Llewellen Barstow, Pandora, 1994
"Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem" by Elaine G. Breslaw, New York University Press, 1996
"The Devil's Dominion" by Richard Godbeer, Cambridge University Press, 2002
"The Puritans in America" (Anthology) edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, Harvard Unviersity Press, 1985