Born in rural Tennessee, Jones has a natural affinity for the dispossessed, her latest work, Song To A Refugee, inspired by both the distressing scenes at the US-Mexican border and a meeting with Emma Thompson and her work as president of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a Human Rights charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers who are survivors of extreme human cruelty, unlocking her writer’s block to produce a song cycle rehumansing those dehumanised by governments.
Produced by David Mansfield, it begins with the accordion waltzing ‘El Chaparral’, the title referring to the port of entry at the Mexico/California border where, sung in the voice of one such child, unaccompanied minors have had to sleep on tarmac out in the train while awaiting detention in the US. Shifting continents, the first of three consecutive tracks to feature Richard Thompson on guitar, the gently jogging folk-Americana ‘I Wait For You’ tells the story of a Sudanese woman sold to a man at the age of thirteen, subsequently fleeing to seek asylum and live in detention in the UK, hoping to send for her children to join her, singing absent lullabies while she waits.
Mansfield on mandolin and violin, the softly waltzing, universally-themed title track follows, an ode to those who set out to escape a living hell with no idea where the path will eventually lead. She returns, then, to the US-Mexico border for ‘We Believe You’, a song in reference to the testimony in Washington DC by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, regarding her visit to a US detention centre and speaking to the women, Thompson, Peggy Seeger, Zara Phillips and Steve Earle all joining Jones to sing the verses.
Another politician is the backdrop to the simple traditional American folk feel of mandolin and mandocello coloured ‘Mama Hold Your Baby’, Senator Elizabeth Warren being the first elected official to visit a detention centre, filming herself outside the El Paso centre recounting the story told her of a mother who walked from Gauatemala holding her baby after receiving death threats from the police.
‘Santiago ‘features just Jones and Mansfield on a gently picked, violin caressed lullabying number inspired by both a Tom Kiefer photo of 23 confiscated rosaries and, on the same day, one of a man at the border with a child in his arms, the heartbreaking song sung in the voice of a man keeping his vow to a dying mother to take her son to safety.
The Chapin sisters on harmony, the gently jogalong, violin-backed ‘Ask A Woman’ again strikes a universal note as she sings of the maternal bond and the compassion that radiates from that, a personal connection underpinning the simple strum and violin of ‘The Life I Left Behind’, a retelling of a story by her Syrian refugee friend and her sister about their one happy life in Aleppo and the aftermath of its devastation.
Another guileless Jones/Mansfield number, a photo was again the impetus for ‘Where We Are’, this time about and sung in the voice of a seven-year-old boy with a piece of paper pinned to his short and one arm with the number 47 written on it, bringing home the depersonalised way such traumatised, separated children were being documented, a far cry from the trust of their parents that the authorities would care for them.
By way of departure, the waltztime ‘Humble’ relates back to her spending a year sick from a gas leak in her apartment, unfolding as a song about being determined to “write your own story”, before returning to her refugee theme with ‘Love Song To A Bird’, another Jones/Mansfield showcase that imagines being on a boat and seeing a bird fly over, with no country and no border limiting its freedom.
She stays on the water for the penultimate ‘The Sea Is My Mother’, a narrative of two sisters in a boat, the one helping the other in their flight, the lyrics ending on an ambiguous note after the boat sinks. Glenn Patscha on piano, it ends, aptly, with ‘The Last Words’, a simple, almost hymnal poignant song of farewell, a letting go for a bittersweet reunion with those who have gone before, its last words being “I am not afraid to go”.
Haunting, eloquent, aglow with empathy and compassion and sung and played with a quiet grace, Song To A Refugee is the best and most important album of her career.
Artist’s website: www.dianajonesmusic.com
‘We Believe You’: