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The Ballads of Child Migration

Celtic Connections Festival 2016
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Tuesday 19 January 2016

This was the live show of October 2015's album BALLADS OF CHILD MIGRATION. The album was originally commissioned for the current V&A exhibition ON THEIR OWN: BRITAIN’S CHILD MIGRANTS. Audio and visual clips were from an Australian film, as yet unseen in the UK, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME directed by Emily Booker, based on the book THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN by David Hill. The many new songs and music cover not only emigrants to Australia but also Canada; commemorating a chapter of our recent history that many would have liked to remain "kept quiet". The songs and narration deal with the enforced migration and in some cases subsequent ill treatment of the more than 100,000 children who were sent unaccompanied to the colonies and Commonwealth between 1869 and as late as 1970, with many never to return. That is not a typo it really did continue until 1970! Government schemes sent children aged as young as 3, without their parents’ consent or knowledge, overseas for official promises of a better life. Some fared well finding good loving homes but in many cases, abuse and loneliness was common and systemic. Many were used as cheap labourers or servants in remote outposts. Brothers and sisters were often separated and told their parents and siblings were dead. The majority of the children, over 90,000 were sent to Canada. The migration to Canada of children under 14 was banned in 1924. Organisations then turned their efforts mainly to Australia where more than 7,000 were sent until the late 1960's. This disgraceful and shocking chapter of or history finally got recognition and an apology from then PM Gordon Brown on 24th February 2010. 

For some reason, possibly the uncomfortable subject matter which could cause one to question so called men and women of God, philanthropists and our leaders, the show didn’t sell as well as expected. A friend commented on the fact that the photographs of the children at the time were very familiar and it could have been us!! The audience can always sense whether the artists performing are moved by subject matter and it was very obvious that everyone on stage was and had been moved by the stories they were telling in song, tune and narrative.

At the last minute it was moved from the very large Concert Hall to the smaller New Auditorium. The house band was the first on stage. Boo Hewerdine, Kris Drever, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Andy Cutting and Andy Seward. Not a bad line up by anyone's standards but it didn't end there. Narrator Barbara Dickson introduced the show and house band. The first performers Chris While and Julie Matthews, ably backed by Barry Coope and Jim Boyes, all Radio Ballad veterans told the story of many leaving for Australia in a song Small Cases Full of Big Dreams, the title really says it all. The lyrics were moving, "With a lie for most of their lives they'll believe, They're bound for paradise, for better lives, Small cases full of big dreams". The house band provided a haunting backdrop with Mike McGoldrick's whistles merging beautifully with Andy's box and John McCusker's fiddle. Next on stage were Belinda O'Hooley, Heidi Tidow and Jez Lowe. Jez must be one of the main "go to guys" when a project like this is considered. Before they performed Barbara gave more information about how the schemes had the approval of the Governments over the years, the Church, philanthropists and even the Royal Family. The first of the audio visuals was presented before the next song. Throughout the show there was a large screen situated above the performers which showed actual footage and audio clips from the now quite elderly children who were shipped abroad. They told of the promises they were made. Jez took lead vocals on Barnado's Party Time. A brisker number illustrating the bright promises made to the children. Barnado's Party was a suitcase label that adorned the cases of many young migrants. 10,000 Miles had wonderful harmonies lead by Barry and Jim, it told the story of many Scottish children sent to Canada. This song was an addition for the night and didn't feature on the album. Barbara commented on Britain's history of using emigration as a cheaper alternative than the cost of the Work Houses. John Doyles song Liberties Sweet Shore, performed by Kris Drever eloquently told the tale of those sent forcibly to Quebec, making the point that in many cases passage was paid for by landlords as it was cheaper than paying work house costs. "Two pounds a head for the passage, With ease our landlord surrendered, And wiped his hands clean as he tendered, From a distance he watched us go." A song I have heard John perform many times but never with the superb set of backing vocals that Kris called on for this performance. Again a very haunting instrumental backing. John McCusker is surely one of the best composers of bitter sweet melodies. It has always eluded me why John Doyle never performs this or other of his songs while playing in Transatlantic Sessions but that’s another matter altogether. Jez paraphrased the phrase Sending Coals to Newcastle with a song about the Snow family, Snow to Nova Scotia. Mike McGoldrick put down his pipes and whistles and played the Bodhran for this. When you have John McCusker sitting next to you playing the whistle you can do that!

Barbara told with aid of an audio visual about the ideas that a brand new start severing all ties with previous life was often thought best. This involved separating siblings and even placing them in different countries. Chris and Julie sang their own composition, the very moving Pinjarra Dreams which told tales of separation and loneliness. "Now I labour on the land, just an unpaid hired hand, And the burning sun it shines from morn till night, No mother's loving arms, no father's tender charms..." Barbara then told of the lies some of the children were told before leaving to give them an expectation of "sunshine and roses". Landfall followed with Jez taking the vocal lead, a story of the joys and expectation of landfall after the ocean journey. Over the years Jez has contributed greatly to this and many radio ballads with deftly written songs of social commentary. Barbara with audio visual aid talked of the Church's role in migration. The Glasgow Youth Choir in suitable period dress assembled at the back of the stage to aid with the hymn Whither Pilgrims Are You Going, telling of going to "the better land", many children were "encouraged" to sing hymns at the dockside before boats embarked. It told of how "Christ is waiting to receive us in that bright and better land". On that thought the first half ended to tumultuous applause, the audience having plenty to talk and think about during the interval.

A beautiful John McCusker composition Leaving All We Know opened the second half. John's fiddle and melody lines beautifully augmented by Andy's box and later by Mike's flute. This was a refreshed version of a tune John wrote for his masterpiece UNDER ONE SKY which is (in my opinion) a CD every music lover should have in their collection. Everyone waited for the final notes to fade before applauding. Another moving audio visual followed telling tales of children arriving at remote destinations in Australia, many realising they were no longer in transit and this was it for the foreseeable future. Julie's song Alien Land with opening and closing notes from a didgeridoo played by guest Johnny MacAdam and sung by Chris and Julie with harmonies from Belinda and Heidi described the exiled orphans' feelings, "Am I forsaken, am I forgotten, all hope taken of ever going home, What did I do, why was I damned and banished here to this alien land". A report from the 1870's told that many emigrants were felt to have "bad blood" and had become "plague spots in the areas", hmm does that sound familiar? Jez led on Tainted Blood, aptly exploring this point, "I saw three ships sailing high and tall, Beware that tainted blood". On this song Andy Seward swapped double bass duties with Kris Drever to play banjo. The abuse in the name of religion and use of beatings to "purify the soul" was dealt with next, one 13-year-old emigrant was beaten so badly his back was broken by a cane. Regular beatings for minor causes were not uncommon. His crime – oversleeping and being late for dairy duties! Devil's Heart sung and written by Chris and Julie sang of the evil men and women involved as the children's answers to the hymn Whither Pilgrims Are You Going, "and now I lay me down to sleep and pray to God my soul to keep, But the one who answers in the dark, Is a holy man with a devil's heart". A brutal institution in Freemantle run by the Christian Brothers which was built by the labour of children of all ages was the subject of a song by Boo Hewerdine and Kris Drever. Lives were controlled and regulated by the Village Bell and the bullies. Village Bell the name of the song. Boo emerged from behind his music stand for this song. Many of us hadn't really seen him until this point. Along with Jez, Boo is also one of the "go to guys". His prolific sing writing ability aptly displayed here. Heidi and Belinda followed with a song Two Mothers, inspired by the film ORANGES AND SUNSHINE by Jim Loach. Although the song is not on the CD it can be found on Belinda and Heidi's CD THE HUM. Michael McGoldrick played Uilleann pipes for additional atmosphere. An audio visual detailing the scars both mental and physical followed, this was particularly upsetting for many and Barbara was visibly moved by the film clip. This was followed by a guest appearance by Eddi Reader both playing accordion and dueting with Boo on his very moving composition The Man (Woman) That I Am. Next was a poem written over a hundred years ago by a returning migrant and set to music by Belinda and Heidi Why Did I Leave Thee? The acknowledgement and apology from Gordon Brown followed. Having seen this show, I along with probably most of the audience was more moved than when he made the statement back in 2010. After that clip Barbara thanked everyone as well as inviting them back on stage and joined them in singing, much to the delight of both audience and cast, the reprised Small Cases Full of Big Dreams

It would be safe to say that not only members of the audience were visibly moved but also many members of the cast who must have gone through a whole gamut of emotions during their involvement and research on this project. The applause went on for some time, the discussions about the subject matter even longer. This was a very memorable and moving night. The relatively small audience who witnessed it were truly privileged. Let's hope that it can be performed again and visually recorded so that others can see and hear and realise this all happened not that long ago. Thanks to Kit Bailey for the set list at the end of the show and Bryan Ledgard for the stunning audio visuals. The CD in booklet form contains much more information on the topics covered by these songs as well as the song lyrics and the composer's thoughts about the songs and their inspiration. 

The exhibition ON THEIR OWN: BRITAIN’S CHILD MIGRANTS is on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood until 12th June 2016.

Keith Belcher
Bryan Ledgard (Photographs)
Northern Sky