May 12 marks the bicentennial anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, the legendary Lady of the Lamp renowned for her service among the troops during the Crimean War, although there was much more to her life than that, indeed she only spent two years as a nurse. To mark the occasion and to expand on her work as a pioneering statistician and social campaigner, an expert hospital design and land irrigation, Jordan had, with the help of Arts Council funding, intended to take a one-woman show out on the road. However, since current events put a stop to that, she has instead recorded nine songs from the show in her home studio for this album, available as both a download and a physical CD.
She opens with ‘Cypress Trees’, a piano-accompanied song inspired by a photograph of trees at Claydon House, the Buckinghamshire home of her sister Parthenope, grown from cones Florence had brought back from Scutari during the Crimean War. With the trees no longer there, sung in Nightingale’s voice, it muses on the concept of memory and remembrance as she says “Don’t bury me in glory/No ceremony do I desire/Don’t turn me into a statue/A relic to be admired/Let the work speak for itself”.
Switching to strummed guitar and what sounds like dulcimer but is in fact some techo trickery with piano reverb and keyboard, ‘Unloving Love’ was part inspired by a bracelet she wore in Scutari around which were wrapped locks of hair from her father, mother, sister and cousin ‘Shore’, the song addressing the complicated relationship she had her family, torn between being the dutiful Victorian daughter and following her own path, encapsulated in the lines “I needed freedom, space to grow/To live a conventional life/It’s too great a sacrifice” after “years in your company, but all alone”.
A change of pace comes with ‘Florrie’s Lorry’, a galloping piano driven music hall styled number sung in a soldier’s voice and referring to the nickname given to the to the carriage in which she was reported to have travelled around in inspecting the different hospitals and which became part of her urban myth.
Having already mentioned her dislike of statues in her honour, ‘Pedestal’, which features Sagat Guirey on what is either banjo or ukulele, returns to the theme and, more particularly, how others “use your popularity/To hide their inabilities/They use your popularity to suit their aims”, but, while she was hailed as a heroine, when her attempts to bring the government to account became irksome “They say you were promiscuous/To undermine your influence”.
Sung unaccompanied, ‘Idle Women’ reflects Nightingale’s need, born into a position of wealth and privilege (“No need to work, her fortune was handsome”), to be useful rather than live the sort of life expected on her social status, the song nodding to how she never married, but also referencing the work women did for little recompense.
As mentioned, Nightingale was an accomplished statistician, believing evidence should be gathered and, made available to the public in ways that could be easily understood, used to demonstrate the benefits of change and hold decision-makers to account. As such, featuring ringing acoustic guitar, keyboards, cascading melody and catchy refrain (“We need maths and we need science/Facts that can be analysed/We’ll use the proof that we’ve collected” ‘Statistics Save Lives’ speaks for itself.
Opening with news vendor’s read all about it cry, ‘Mr Daly’ is another unaccompanied number, the song in reference to the death of a Mr Timothy Daly at St Bartholomew’s Hospital following alleged neglect at Holborn Union Workhouse, another area in which she worked for social reform, campaigning for the employment of professional nurses in workhouses. The description of people passing the buck for his death (“drenched in his own sweat/While the government refused to help him/Who will come forward and speak up for the poor/To change this broken system?”) clearly resonates with the era of Universal Credit.
As also mentioned, she was an expert on land irrigation and, drawing on her 1873 paper Life or Death in India and its 1874 appendix Life or Death by Irrigation, it’s this aspect of her life upon which the jittery piano-accompanied ‘Living Water’ (a term used in the report where she describes the benefits of running vs. stagnant water) is based, the lyrics adapting Nightingale’s own words as she sings “I We don’t care for the voiceless millions/Living on a few grains of rice and the shirt on their back” and asks “How can we judge the value of a person/If our first thought is what we get in return?”.
It ends with the simple circling piano notes and cello of ‘Words’, written in response to Jordan holding some of Nightingale’s correspondence in her own hands and the feeling of connection with her voice “Willing me to hope, to see”.
Like her previous work exploring the contribution of strong women in contemporary history, No Petticoats Here and The Hard Way, this is a well-researched and superbly executed album and once things return to relative normality, hopefully those one-woman shows will play to packed houses.
Artist’s website: www.louisejordan.co.uk
Here is Louise’s introduction to the album: