'Spit'n Lyon' melds music and history onstage
The nation is torn apart by factions haranguing their fellow citizens for wrong-headed thinking and transgressions both real and fabricated. The president, emboldened by sycophants, abuses his power, denigrates immigrants and takes on the trappings of a king, even to the point of threatening to throw his critics in jail. “Fake news” ricochets around the landscape.
This is not the United States of America in 2020, it’s the United States in the late 1790s. When Federalists (behind President John Adams) and Democratic-Republicans (behind Thomas Jefferson) excoriated one another in the press, in the public square, on the floor of Congress. When Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts he gained the power to jail those who criticized him. When even the Electoral College could not break the deadlocked 1800 presidential election, the House of Representatives was called to resolve it.
At the center of this tumultuous period stood a Vermonter — Congressman Matthew Lyon. And now a new musical tells his tale onstage.
“Spit’n Lyon” tells the true story of the Irish immigrant who came to Connecticut in the 1760s as an indentured servant, moved to Vermont with the rush of pioneers, fought with the Green Mountain Boys in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, founded the town of Fair Haven, served in Congress and was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives while he was siting in a jail cell on Green Street in Vergennes, where he was sent after disparaging President Adams, saying our second president had “selfish avarice (and) required foolish adulation and ridiculous pomp.”
“This project is such a strange confluence of politics, music and history,” said John Daly, the Hinesburg musician and fountainhead of “Spit’n Lyon.” “There’s not a social or political issue that we are dealing with now that isn’t in the script.”
Daly, a talented songwriter and leader of a namesake bar band, wanted to write a song about Matthew Lyon after he learned that he was the only Congressman elected from jail, and that jail was nearby in Vergennes. “Once I realized I lived within miles of the mysterious jail cell I became somewhat obsessed,” Daly wrote in a blog on spitnlyon.com. Phone calls, inter-library loans, field trips, scavenger hunts and a real journey within had just started.
“I read every book publicly available about Matthew Lyon,” he told me. “I held the newspaper he published in my hands; I was in tears.”
As he learned more about Lyon — how he knew all of Vermont’s founders, how Lyon published harsh political tracts on a press he bought from Benjamin Franklin using metal type that he had melted down from bullets gathered on Hubbardton’s Revolutionary War battlefield — Daly saw the single song grow into a concept album. “When I started sketching out this material I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to hear this history nerd stuff in a bar.”
In 2017 he turned to a childhood friend for help with the expanding project. Greg Goldman is a multi-instrumental musical virtuoso who lives in St. Louis. Daly really caught the fever. Not normally a fast composer, he found himself writing songs about Matthew Lyon at a manic pace. “The surface tension broke and I felt like I was falling on a banquet table it all came out so fast,” he said. “I had four or five songs in my head at a time.”
He credits this in part to the unique collaboration he had with Goldman. Daly would get an idea for a song, write down the title and lyrics, then hum the tune into a recorder and pass it on to Goldman, who did the work of orchestrating the fragments into a full-fledged musical piece.
“Greg is a really talented musician. I’m a talented songwriter — I can turn a phrase, I can tell a story,” Daly said.
They finished the 30-song album and published it on Nov. 5, 2018 — the day of the midterm Congressional elections. A few months later they dressed up in colonial garb and sang a few of the songs in the Vermont Statehouse during Farmers Night.
Like other works of great art, “Spit’n Lyon” started with a simple question that became a song: Where was the jail cell of Matthew Lyon? In addition to telling a tale using chronologically ordered events, the songs throw in historiographical questions, like Why aren’t there any women written into history? (because “while men work women raise the families,” the song goes). An aside in one song considers Lyon’s age when he left home — his mother sings that he was 12, but a male voice imposes, “I’m 14,” and she retorts, “There’s historical conjecture about that.”
It is a richly layered dish telling the story of a man, a state and a nation. There is enough history in the play to make it instructive, and enough poetic invention to make it elevating.
“After the statehouse I thought if we want this to be clear for someone we really needed dialogue,” Daly recalled. So the concept expanded into a staged musical, and he brought in playwright Lesley Becker of Burlington. Daly had first met Becker six years ago at the Bixby Library, where she staged her play “Winds of Change.” Becker is no stranger to politically charged theater. Among her works is one play about abortion called “Red and Blue All Over.”
Daly realized the script would be different from the songs that make up the concept album. “We were careful to create a second product,” he said.
“I have to have a reason for every syllable I sing, and she has to have a reason for every word she writes. She gets to be much more subtle and much more gradual — leading the audience through the story so it grows with the characters … Lesley can get the content of four songs into three or four sentences.”
Like any artist, Becker did take liberties with the story that Daly and Goldman presented. In addition to there being a fair amount of spoken monologue at the beginning and spoken dialogue throughout, she created a romance that isn’t in the historical record. She draws a tender portrait of Lyon and his wife, Beulah Chittenden, the daughter of Vermont founding father Thomas Chittenden. She acknowledges that no one really knows what they said to each other in private, but for the purpose of a play those things needed to be spoken.
“I made it up,” Becker said.
As it came together the play faced the same hurdles as any production, but then the pandemic struck. A planned September performance at the Vergennes Opera House was called off. Nevertheless, Daly, Becker and company held a first cold read of “Spit’n Lyon” in June with real actors. Last month they gathered singers, an accompanist and a few audience members and staged a sing-through in the yard of a private home in Charlotte. Still trying to secure a producer and director, Daly and Becker hope to get the musical onto a stage in front of a real audience next year.
“Depending where COVID is in 2021 we may just do that in a tent,” Daly said. “At a historically relevant venue I figure you could get 90 people in the audience.”
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Spit’n Lyon” makes me think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash, “Hamilton,” which covers the same historical period in song. “I would’ve never considered writing a rock opera if Lin-Manuel hadn’t written Hamilton,” Daly said.
Nevertheless, he thinks that another Broadway blockbuster, “Hadestown” by Addison County native Anaïs Mitchell, has more to do with the future of his own musical. “It’s a lot less likely that someone will laugh in our faces because of ‘Hadestown,’” Daly said. “She’s made a pathway for us to follow.”
Daly said he has been pulling out his hair watching America repeating the same mistakes it made 200 years ago. “Lines are drawn, people have made up their minds and closed them.”
But he says that changing policies alone will not solve the problem we face now — it is people’s hearts and minds that need to change. He hopes to have something to do with that.
“Art changes hearts,” Daly said. “No change happens in the world without a change in the heart. The opportunity of this musical is to get the audience to feel things differently.”