wed 19/12/2018

The Ballads of Child Migration, St James's Church, Clerkenwell review - into the heart of darkness | reviews, news & interviews

The Ballads of Child Migration, St James's Church, Clerkenwell review - into the heart of darkness

The Ballads of Child Migration, St James's Church, Clerkenwell review - into the heart of darkness

A chronicle of Britain's long and shameful history of child migration in a moving song cycle

From left: Belinda O'Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Chris While and Julie Matthews, photographed in Glasgow

What adjectives best describe a performance of The Ballads of Child Migration? None of those you’d normally expect to see applied to an evening of superlative music-making, for the song cycle chronicles the deprivations suffered by child migrants sent from Britain over the course of one hundred years. Mostly they were sent to Australia, poor children in need of a loving home and an education who were used as slave farm labour. Some were also sent to New Zealand, others to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and a smaller number to Canada, where they fared somewhat better. More than 100,000 youngsters were despatched in this way.

These stories of often unremitting cruelty went unremarked for a long time, though in 2010 Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official apology and urged that “we take the time to listen to the voices of the survivors and victims of these misguided policies." In March of this year, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse urged the government to compensate all surviving child migrants for the abuse they’d suffered, usually at the hands of those – priests, teachers – who were charged with protecting them. There has been no response.

The songs are each perfect miniatures, their style and texture servant to the words

Drawing on letters and other archival material, the 16 songs in the programme are written and performed by some of the great names in Anglo-Irish folk music, including Jez Lowe who, in 2006, was commissioned by the BBC to create a new series of Radio Ballads echoing the pioneering 1950s series by Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker. Intriguingly, Child Migration was turned down by the BBC and instead accompanied the 2015 exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. Subsequently performed at Celtic Connections, The Ballads of Child Migration went on to win a Radio 2 Folk Award. Now there is a short tour.

It’s a powerful and at times upsetting evening, heart-rending stories set to some very beautiful music. Folk music at its best, doing what it has always done – passing on an important story. A CD is already available and there is a documentary, The Long Journey Home, clips from which were interspersed with the songs in live performance. There were also photos and audio clips of often tearful migrants who have never recovered from the horrors of being torn from parents and siblings.

On stage along with Lowe were John McCusker, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, Mike McGoldrick, John Doyle and Boo Hewerdine, Andy Cutting, and Chris While and Julie Matthews. Ironically, While and Matthews have performed at Australia’s Fairbridge Folk Festival, once the site of Fairbridge Farms where one child migrant was beaten so brutally for oversleeping that his back was broken. Also in the line-up, though they haven’t contributed songs, were bassist Andy Seward, music producer of BBC’s Radio Ballads, and Barbara Dickson, narrator. Children from the Queensbridge Primary School Chamber Choir joined the line-up for the reprise of “Small Cases Full of Big Dreams”.

The songs are each perfect miniatures, their style and texture servant to the words. “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” reflects the torrent of emotions the children must have felt – excitement at promises made, regret for loved ones left behind, horror at seasickness and losses incurred on the journey. Many of the songs reflect the evangelical fervour that accompanied the children’s cruel despatch, Bibles in hand – these “ragged pilgrims”, their names and birth dates changed, “truly born again”. In “Whither Pilgrims Are You Going”, tonic/dominant chord progressions echo traditional hymns. The most beautiful song, written and exquisitely performed by Julie Matthews, is also the most sickening: “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.”

The Ballads of Child Migration is a work as disturbing as it is beautiful. It demands to be listened to – and as we do, we must reflect on the everyday cruelty we mete out to migrants coming to Britain today.

Liz Thomson's website

It’s a powerful and at times upsetting evening, heart-rending stories set to some very beautiful music

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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