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"Philadelphia, 1918" tells the story of an immigrant's experience living in Philadelphia in the early 1900's. Life was hard for the song's protagonist, but 1918's Spanish Flu pandemic would make those days gone by pale in comparison.
I wrote this song in December 2019 for the January 2020 meeting of The Song Colony, a regular songwriter's gathering, in Marietta, Ohio. Each month, a challenge word or phrase is chosen for creative inspiration for the next session.
The challenge word for the month was "fever" - for some reason, I almost immediately thought of the flu pandemic of 1918. I knew of this story, but not much in the way of detail. After researching this stunning chapter of history in the early 1900's, I had the story line for the song.
Little did any of us know what the whole world would be experiencing within six weeks of presenting this tune at the January meeting of The Song Colony. There are eerie similarities between what happened in 1918 and what's happening now as I write this in March, 2020.
Note: ALL proceeds from downloads of "Philadelphia, 1918" will be donated to the
Center for Disaster Philanthropy's COVID-19 Response Fund through July 4, 2020.
By John A. Walsh
On up in the neighborhood, near Kensington & Applewood;
Above O’Leary’s Five & Dime, next to the alleyway.
An awning, black with mold & soot; cobblestone under wheel and hoof
That’s what I see from our rooftop flat on the building we call home.
Back in ’99, I came through the line at Ellis Island
With just the clothing that I wore.
This was the Land of Dreams, or so it seemed;
And my expectations soared.
I found work at Tacony’s mill – where a day’s work pays two dollar bills;
However hard I push that stone uphill, I just cannot make ends meet.
Prisoners in the Promised Land, with busted backs and filthy hands
Too worn down to get a grip on the ladder, let alone its elusive rungs.
Then, 11 years ago, our son was wrought from our souls
Born right here in this flat upon our bed.
He brought hope and light to our encumbered lives.
A purpose for the path we’ve tread.
A month ago, to this very day, we went to watch the grand parade;
The whole city had lined the sidewalks down along Broad Street.
There, amidst the revelry, a fever slipped in silently;
And, since that day, has violently brought this old town to its knees.
Our men went to war on a foreign shore
But unwittingly brought this enemy back here.
Without grenade or gun, this baneful beast has won;
And has us cowering in fear…
I lost my boy today, right here he passed away
On the same bed where he was brought into this life.
Now my world’s gone black; we’re never gonna get him back.
The hope we had just yesterday has now turned to grief and strife.
I look out at the rain cascading down that stained awning,
But it’ll never be rinsed clean.
And I doubt that God’s own tears could ever hope to wash clear
This agony’s dark stain.
(c)2020 John A. Walsh / JAWSongs (ASCAP)
released March 22, 2020
John A. Walsh: Vocals, Guitars, Bass