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Album review: “The Ballads of Child Migration: Songs for Britain’s Child Migrants”

October 9, 2015

The Ballads of Child Migration is an album of brand new songs from some of Britain’s finest folk musicians inspired by these heartbreaking true stories and coincides with a new exhibition taking place at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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The Ballads of Child Migration - coverAs the Child Migrants Trust notes, “Britain is the only country in the world with a sustained history of child migration. Only Britain has used child migration as a significant part of its child care strategy over a period of four centuries rather than as a policy of last resort during times of war or civil unrest”. Often children, some as young as three, were uprooted – deported, to be blunt – without their parents’ knowledge or consent and shipped around the Commonwealth: those many nations invaded and settled by force, generally for the purposes of exploitation of the indigenous peoples and natural resources. The many and varied abuses implicit in the enforced migration of children from Britain were tacitly legitimised as part of this shameful exercising of colonial power and it’s a side of white imperialism which is often overlooked by those who write the history books.

Thankfully, public awareness of this dark chapter of social history continues to be developed and two related projects include On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants, an exhibition set to run from 24 October 2015 to 12 June 2016 at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, and The Ballads of Child Migration: Songs for Britain’s Child Migrants, a specially commissioned collection of fourteen songs by leading British folk musicians, which visitors can listen to at certain points in the exhibition and which are contained within this CD.

The songs themselves were written by the artists who perform them, with one exception, while the recordings feature a mix of solo musicians (Jez Lowe; John Doyle; John McCusker; Boo Hewerdine), duos (Chris While and Julie Matthews; Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow) and combinations of the contributors (Jez Lowe with Coope, Boyes and Simpson) with the one cover version (actually a hymn, ‘Whither Pilgrims Are You Going?’) being performed by the massed talents of Coope, Boyes and Simpson, O’Hooley and Tidow and The Network Choir. Lyrically, each song focuses on a particular aspect of the forced child migrations from Britain which took place between 1869 and 1970. Each of the musicians does a good job of treading what must have been a difficult path between accurate portrayal of the known facts (the objective) and emotive renderings of specific aspects of the individual stories (the subjective).

Chris While and Julie Matthews open the album with ‘Small Cases Full of Big Dreams’. Julie found the song’s inspiration while visiting Fairbridge Village in Australia to play at a festival in 1997. As she explains in the sleeve notes, “Fairbridge [was] one of the many sites used to house, school and put to work the children of forced child migration” which is now an information centre and museum. She adds that she was “deeply moved by a photograph in the ‘On Their Own’ exhibition of children at the docks all carrying their suitcases” along with an exhibition of the contents of a suitcase: “small things, but they must have seemed like the world to those kids”. The song itself is a reflective, piano-led piece with some wistful violin behind Julie’s thoughtful lyrics and some sweet harmonies.

Jez Lowe’s ‘Barnardo’s Party Time’ is also inspired by photos at the exhibition showing childrens’ suitcases bearing stickers pronouncing the owners were members of the “Barnardo’s Party”. While the selected children may have found reassurance from the label that they weren’t alone, that tearing them away from their homes and families was going to be some sort of fun-filled jolly jape, it also provided easy identification for their minders. In recent times it has come to light that Barnardo’s have been providers of welfare and social care services at the controversial Cedars immigration detention centre, which makes one wonder who decided that the charity’s experience could be capitalised upon half a century after the ending of forced child migration. Jez’s lyrics are sharply observed, subtly pointing out the propaganda elements of the “Barnardo’s Party” message in a deceptively jaunty mandolin-driven song with jumping bass, skipping drums, penny whistle and fiddle and a pointedly happy-happy chorus.

Over a backing of acoustic guitar, fiddle and uilleann pipes, John Doyle’s ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’ tells of the nineteenth century rural evictions in Ireland which were driven by the cynical use of migration “as a way of dealing with poverty”: it was cheaper for landlords to subsidise the one-way fares of 100,000 men, women and children to North America than to pay the ongoing costs of keeping them in workhouses. Still in the nineteenth century, ‘Snow to Nova Scotia’ (a play on words on the old ‘coals to Newcastle’ maxim) by Jez Lowe relates the biographical story of Freddie Snow, whose forced migration to Canada under the “Home Children” child migration scheme. The folk-rock arrangement contains some interesting changes and is one of the most radio-friendly songs on the album although the lyrics draw a perceptive word picture of the life and times of Freddie Snow which may well be at odds with the programming criteria of many commercial radio stations.

The use of religion as a tool for indoctrination and social control – “be good in this life and receive your reward in the next” – is not a new thing and was used extensively in the forced child migration schemes in various ways, from the handing out of Bibles to the singing of hymns, such as ‘Whither Pilgrims Are You Going?’ on the quayside as the ships set sail. It makes sense, therefore, to include that particular hymn in this collection, although the biographies of its writers (Fanny Crosby and William Batchelder Bradbury) suggest that both had some unpleasantly reactionary facets to their characters. Be that as it may, the ensemble of Coope, Boyes and Simpson; O’Hooley and Tidow and The Network Choir, provide a spirited rendition which sits well within the compilation and sequencing of the album, the children’s choir adding a certain poignancy.

‘Devil’s Heart’ (Chris While and Julie Matthew) was written as a direct response to the hymn; as Julie points out in the sleeve notes, many children were subjected to terrible abuse when they were placed in religious institutions. The arrangement sounds almost as though it could have been written as a hymn, complete with ensemble singing, but anyone with a shred of compassion will surely be deeply moved by the closing verse:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep
But the one who answers in the dark is a holy man with a devil’s heart”

John McCusker’s instrumental ‘Leaving All We Know’ is a remix of a composition he’d previously recorded with Iain MacDonald (flute), Emma Reid (fiddle), James Mackintosh (percussion), Andy Cutting (diatonic accordion), Ewen Vernal (double bass) and Ian Carr (guitar). Gordon Lynch, who conceived the original idea of The Ballads of Child Migration, had approached John about using a tune he’d written for a different project, called ‘Under One Sky’, as he (Gordon) thought it “evoked the feeling of travel to other countries and new beginnings”. Slow, drone notes on fiddle, bass and accordion gradually gather momentum to reveal the melody, before ebbing away into a passage in which guitar and fiddle are foregrounded with the whole band rejoining for the more uptempo closing section.

Teaming up with Coope, Boyes and Simpson for ‘Landfall’, Jez Lowe considers how the children may have felt once their respective voyages were under way, “sharing similar naïve, storybook expectations of life in the new country that awaits them”. The song has an appropriately upbeat feel with gently strummed guitar over accordion, fiddle and a steady percussive pitter-patter bolstered by the reassuring harmonies of Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Against the optimism, though, one also wonders about the moment when the realisation hit the children that they would never be going home again, would never see their Mums and Dads again. This heartbreaking desolation is dealt with by Chris While and Julie Matthews with tenderness and empathy in the delicate ballad ‘Pinjarra Dreams’. I usually like to mention in my reviews those songs which I considered particular highlights; the intensity of the subject matter on The Ballads of Child Migration has made such choices seem somehow inappropriate but this particular song resonated with me deeply and personally and I will admit that it left me feeling quite tearful. I’m not sure if that small moment of sadness bordering on self-pity can be counted as a highlight, but there we are.

Boo Hewerdine and Kris Drever’s contribution, ‘The Village Bell’, focuses on an aspect of the enforced relocation that one might not ordinarily consider – how unfamiliar the sounds of nature must have seemed – and in so doing, powerfully conveys the sense of loneliness and homesickness the children must have felt. As Boo says in his sleeve notes, “perhaps only the village bell was a constant”. The chiming guitars underpin the lyric, driving the song along while the chorus harmonies offer a welcome sweetness, albeit tinged with a note of sadness. In ‘Alien Land’, Chris While and Julie Matthews further explore how disorienting and frightening these brave new worlds must have seemed to the children, with all the comfort of familiarity removed. A didgeridoo and clapsticks accentuate the sense of loneliness while a field recording of crickets adds ambience throughout a powerful and emotive performance. As before, I’m not sure how appropriate it is to talk about highlights of this collection, but if it is, then this song certainly qualifies.

Picking up on the story of Freddie Snow covered in his earlier contribution (‘Snow to Nova Scotia’), Jez Lowe draws on Perry Snow’s biography of his father for ‘Tainted Blood’ to highlight the exploitation and verbal abuse to which deported children were subjected by their new guardians. Against a Bluegrass-influenced arrangement of banjo, fiddle and double bass, Jez’s lyric is a well-written example of ‘show don’t tell’, in the process hinting at some of the horrific abuses that took place.

In ‘The Man That I Am’, Boo Hewerdine looks at the story of an ex-Fairbridge boy later in his life and his assertion that his life had brought him happiness in a slow, waltz-time ballad with Country overtones. While none of us can truly know what goes on in another’s head, Boo wonders if, behind the stoic face in the photograph, was a lifetime of unspoken sadness.

Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow’s ‘Why Did I Leave Thee?’ brings the album to a close, recounting the biography of a nineteenth-century child migrant who, finding his new life harder than the one he’d left behind, returned to Britain after a year. Their song’s title is taken from a poem written by the youngster and preserved by his old school teacher. It’s a wistful piece with a sparse arrangement and bittersweet harmonies which hints at the great sufferings which many of the child migrants must have endured.

I have only praise and commendation for The Ballads of Child Migration project for raising awareness with sensitivity, compassion and empathy about a subject which has been swept under the carpet for far too long. While such a project can never tell the full story, I feel that this one covers a huge amount of ground in ensuring that the stories of these British children is not diminished, overlooked or forgotten. Equally, those who were subjected to these shocking abuses, and their loved ones and descendants, must be given space and support to process their experiences and come to terms with the oppressions meted out so harshly by a powerful elite. For all these reasons, those who have worked so hard on this project deserve full credit for reminding us that white people’s capacity for inhumanity truly knows no bounds when given free rein – and those who find these truths unpalatable might do well to consider their own attitudes and prejudices.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (09 October 2015)

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