Charleroi is the second half of the Pittsburgh story. The Pittsburgh album was about the grandmother William Fitzsimmons knew. Charleroi is about the one he never did.
William’s father was born to a woman who would go on to have 5 children, none of whom she raised. Some were taken into custody of the state of Pennsylvania. Others were placed for adoption. William’s father, as an infant, was returned to the hospital dangerously sick with whooping cough. He was left there for several months. No one from his family would ever return for him. Finally, many months later, he was adopted by a kind doctor who became his father. Never knowing his birth family, or why he was left, it was assumed that mystery would remain forever. And thus this story was written upon William’s father, and from him, written upon William.
In 2015, after over 60 years of wondering and waiting, the family was finally found. William’s biological grandmother having deceived the remainder of the family by telling them the baby died at the hospital, William’s father was never sought out. Sadly his mother passed away several years before having a chance to ever see her lost son again. Or ever meet the sons which came from him.
In the last two years William has lost both of his grandmothers. One died only last year, the other nearly thirty years ago. Yet both losses are fresh. One was a steadfast presence in William’s life from the moment he was born, the other a ghostly figure of a long forgotten story. Yet both have in a way always been there, one in her presence the other, her absence.
Loss, painful though it is, offers a unique and potent opportunity for the kind of emotional clarity that only comes a few times during our lives. It forgets that which doesn’t matter and fans the flame for what does. It burns us with the names of those who gave their good years so that we might have our own.
William never had the opportunity to meet or know his grandmother Thelma. In writing these pieces he hopes to do so in some small way. She was from Charleroi, Pennsylvania. These songs are about her.
American singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn is a shape-shifter who can’t sit still. Since 2010 she’s worked under the moniker The Mynabirds, releasing three critically acclaimed and stylistically different albums on Saddle Creek: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (2010) and GENERALS (2012), both produced by Richard Swift, and Lovers Know (2015). She has also toured as a member of the Postal Service (2013) and Bright Eyes (2011), helped found Omaha Girls Rock (a non-profit helping young girls find their voices), and in 2013 gave a TED talk based on her “New Revolutionists” portrait project, exploring what it means to be a revolutionary woman in this day and age. Before the Mynabirds, Laura was a member of DC indie band Georgie James with Q And Not U’s John Davis, and also put out two self-produced solo albums on the label she founded herself, Laboratory Records.