Back around 2008, when I first learned that the weird westerns and alternate history I had been writing overlapped with steampunk, I decided to see if I could find some music to put me in a good frame of mind for writing. I tend to prefer instrumental music while I write, but I’m happy to have music with lyrics while I’m getting settled into write. I remember naively typing the phrase “steampunk music” into Google just to see what would come up. I found several discussion boards talking about a band called Abney Park and their album Lost Horizons, which was brand new around that time. I bought a copy of the album and fell in love with the music written by the band’s lead singer Robert Brown. Over the years, I’ve snapped up pretty much every album they’ve produced as they’ve been released. I have especially appreciated that Brown has released purely instrumental versions of some of the albums, and yes, they do work as great background when I’m writing.
As time went on, I discovered that Brown is not only a talented songwriter, but a capable storyteller. He’s written three novels set in the world he’s developed through the songs. In 2020, Brown even recorded an audio version of his novel The Toyshop at the End of the World. Given that he performs all the time as lead singer of a band, it should come as no surprise that he performed the book well. So, I was excited to hear that Robert Brown had brought his storytelling and musical talents together into a musical called Giants of Iron and Steam. I gather Brown had hoped to debut this as a live musical, but logistics have not worked out. So, he decided to release it as an album and I recently gave it a listen.
The musical opens in the distant future of his novel series. Two men enter the laboratory of Dr. Calvin Calgori, pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The two men talk about trying to get to the truth of some matter. To find the information they need, they must use an invention by Dr. Calgori, which will allow them to view the distant past. They peer into the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s as a railroad is being established between a lumber mill and the nearby mountains. We’re soon introduced to a lumberjack named Robert Winters and his daughter Effie who live deep in the mountains. They look forward to the railroad because that means Robert won’t have to float logs down the river. The railroad will support Charles Foster Quinn’s lumber mill. Quinn’s son, Aaron, doesn’t want to succeed his father in the family business. Instead, he wants to be an engineer on the new railroad. Aaron soon meets Effie, which stirs more division between the young man and his father.
The musical felt like a cross between The Pajama Game and Paint Your Wagon. The former is the story of workers at a pajama factory fighting for better wages and working conditions, a theme which comes up in Giants of Iron and Steam. The stage version of Paint Your Wagon focused on the miner Ben Rumson and his daughter’s forbidden romance with a young man named Julio. Unlike those musicals from the 1950s, Giants of Iron and Steam is more honest about the history of labor and race. Plus there’s a dandy mystery as we figure out what the people from the future want from this story of the past.
I felt several personal connections to this story. Aaron learning to be a railroad engineer reminded me of my dad teaching me how to drive a locomotive. Robert Winters talking about the dangers of taking logs down the river reminded me of stories about my great grandfather, who apparently did take logs downriver in his youth, and was seriously wounded at one point. Finally, at one point, Robert Winters reflects on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and sees himself as Prospero to Effie’s Miranda. Given that I actually do have a daughter named Myranda, I’ve opportunity to reflect on The Tempest and definitely felt the parallels.
Giants of Iron and Steam is sold along with the script for the musical, so you can read along as you listen. You can learn more at: https://abneypark.com/market/musical-giants-of-iron-steam-c-83/
If you’d like to look into my steampunk old west, which also tries to present an honest look at history go to http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion