Home is the second album from English-Irish singer, songwriter, and musician – as well as a former actor and NHS doctor – Lewis Barfoot. Born in England, Lewis is now based in East Cork, where she has set out to explore the history and legacy of her mother’s family. She described her debut album, Glenaphuca (the name of her grandmother’s farm in East Cork), as a folk prayer to her ancestors, and this theme continues Home. Here she illuminates the lives and sufferings of the women of the family and, in doing so, tells of the journey of Irish women from past sufferings to a brighter future. Darker aspects of modern Irish history – asylums, orphanages, and industrial schools – all feature, but the message of Home is ultimately one of optimism and liberation.
While rooted in the folk music of Ireland and Britain, Lewis’ work includes elements of blues and jazz. This is evident on the title track, with its gently lilting old timey feel. It’s inspired by still water and the feelings of contentedness and belonging that Lewis found in East Cork during lockdown. It’s a gentle song, ending with an ethereal rendition of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ ‘Home’ is a moment of calm, before we move on to more challenging subjects.
A song familiar to many lovers of folk music follows. ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ has been recorded a number of times, and this version – haunting and atmospheric – is a very worthy addition to the list. Lewis begins singing unaccompanied, before evocative backing vocals and instrumental accompaniment joins in. This sad song, telling of a woman’s suffering through the actions of a man, is included here because it spoke to Lewis about the life of her grandmother. In 1940s Ireland, men had the power to have a woman committed to an asylum, which is what happened to Lewis’ grandmother, locked up at the behest of her husband with the help of the local priest.
A defiant call to arms follows. ‘Women Of Ireland’ both celebrates the abolition of the Eighth Amendment to the Republic’s Constitution – which effectively outlawed abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger – and calls for past injustices to be addressed; “Now the voices of the past, Must be healed, Their stories gently revealed”. The tune has a European Gypsy feel, helped by Elizabeth Flett’s violin playing. The opening is grave and melancholy, but the tempo picks up and eventually leads into fast, flowing section, perhaps symbolising a sense of liberation. The lyrics contain a reference to Mother Earth, which might point towards another item of Lewis’ impressive CV, her role as an educator and facilitator of embodied archetype workshops.
We already know something about Lewis’ grandmother, whose husband takes centre stage in ‘Grandfather Rogue.’ Inspired by the chord sequence of a Michelle Shocked song, this has a great old-time blues feel, helped by some nice clarinet playing by Gabriel Buffa. The jaunty tune fits well with the roguish, villainous nature of the song’s subject. Not only did he consign his wife to an asylum, but he also sent his nine children to orphanages and industrial schools. The treatment suffered by many in these institutions, often run by religious orders, remains a matter of deep controversy. One of the themes of this album is addressed here – society’s silence in the face of, and unwillingness to acknowledge these injustices;
Oh the mystery
Of why the children were sent away?
Why the mother deemed insane?
And why did nobody intervene
When they heard screams
Down the boreen?
Lewis’ Mum never spoke of her experiences in the orphanage she was sent to, leaving Lewis with a deep desire to be able to go back to rescue her, and all the children abandoned to Church institutions. This is the subject ‘For You A Stor,’ the most complex and perhaps the most effecting song on Home. After a gentle start, the tune picks up and eventually a faster and more fiery sequence develops. The tempo then drops again, and we hear a brief spoken voice recording of a woman who grew up in the same orphanage, before moving onto a rending of the beautiful Gaelic song ‘A Stor, A Stor. A Ghra’ (‘My Darling, My Darling, My Love’). Lewis’ singing makes this sound like a gentle lullaby. Kerry Andrew (You Are Wolf) supplies backing vocals on this track.
After so much emotion, some peace and calm is needed before the album can move from a painful past to a brighter future. The ethereal ‘Buha’ is beautiful in its simplicity and was written by Lewis in the key of E, after a baby owl sung to her in that key in Spain. And what could be more calming than a baby owl? Lewis’ fine guitar playing drives this track, on which there are few words, but the repeated line, “Sleep in my arms”, reflects her deep emotional connection with the subject matter of this album.
Another archetype, the inner child is the inspiration for ‘New Boots.’ Bluesy guitar opens this joyously optimistic track, with a strong message of moving forward into a brighter future; “Goodbye sorrows of yesterday, Let’s put on our new boots and away.’
The joyful mood continues ‘Dublin City Bells.’ With a chorus that evokes a peel of bells, this is an infectiously lively tune, helped by hand drums supplying a toe tapping rhythm. The inspiration comes from the bells and vibrant street life of Temple Bar, the Dublin district loved by tourists, where Lewis worked as artist in residence at the Dublin City Arts Office.
A calmer mood returns on the impressive ‘Rock Me On The Ocean.’ Uncovering her family past has been liberating for Lewis, and sharing her story has empowered others. This song was written as an empowering singalong and, with its lilting and rhythmic tune, it works well. The lyrics talk of wildness, and, after a burst of laughter, the gently contented feel gives way to a wild section, with a powerful rhythm. The mood this section evokes is beyond joyful and has become truly ecstatic!
‘Ancestors’ is the albums rousing choral finale. Written as a song for two voices, it’s been arranged for a choir by choral leader Ben See, and performed by a choir of nine, including Kerry Andrew and the album’s violinist Elizabeth Flett. The result is an intense and prayerful tribute to the lives of women who went before. The only accompaniment is a low drumbeat. The Church is the main villain in the lyrics, and it might be deliberately ironic that ‘Ancestors’ sounds like a Sung Mass
Home is a thoughtful, intelligent, and deeply personal album. It celebrates the remarkable progress that has been made by Ireland since it has confronted darker elements of its past, but also emphasises the need to remember that past. And even if the subject matter doesn’t interest you, the music is well worth listening to for its own sake. Lewis Barfoot is a very talented songwriter, a fine guitarist and is blessed with a beautiful voice. As a singer, she’s been compared to the likes of Sandy Denny, Mairie Brennan and Kate Rusby. That’s high praise but having listened to her clear and evocative vocals on Home, I’d say it’s well deserved.
Lyrics from the closing track, ‘Ancestors,’ are included on the album sleave and sum up what Home is all about:
To all that went before
And all yet to be born.
May we know what it is to be free.
Artist’s website: Folk Music | Lewis Barfoot
‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ – live: