Monday, June 21, 2021

She was deeply influenced by the stories of refugees. So he told them in song.

Diana Jones Known as a singer-songwriter of unusual empathy, a shrewd observer of the human condition whose heart goes out to the oppressed and oppressed.

Since his 1997 debut, Jones has created indelible stories from the perspectives of others, a battered woman who contemplates pointing a gun at his abuser a coal miner trapped underground What would prove to be his last letter to his wife while writing it.

Her latest project, “Song to a Refuge” (on Friday), released overseas last year, pities the struggles of immigrants fleeing terror and persecution in their homes.

Produced with David Mansfield, whose streamlined Neo-Appalachian arrangement deepens the passage of his lyrics and vocals, Jones’ record is an unintentional concept album. After a bout of writer’s block, it developed rapidly, triggered by the horrors she witnessed during a flurry of songwriting. News from the United States border with Mexico and beyond.

“I was trying to understand what was going on, first of all for myself,” Jones, 55, explained. She was speaking on the phone from her home in Manhattan’s West Village, describing her reaction to the daily dealings with immigrants, most of whom were people of color.

“At the same time, I felt a responsibility to report on what was happening,” she said. “I wanted to boil things down to a smaller voice because the more personal it is, the harder it is.”

Jones, who was adopted at birth and raised in Long Island, NY, comes naturally to her empathy. “I was always looking for something, a face or a home, anything to connect with,” she said of her initial search for her family of origin. “When I was 15, I too was without a home. I never saw what it meant to have food to eat and a roof over my head. I express my gratitude for physical protection every day.”

Her latest project received an unexpected initial impetus from someone with a very different background: actress Emma Thompson. Coincidentally, the two women met at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where they chatted about their mutual commitment to human rights. Shortly after, Jones wrote “I Wait for You” about a Sudanese mother who seeks asylum in England, hoping to eventually be reunited with her children.

Thompson served on the board of Helen Bamber Foundation, a British organization originally established to care for Holocaust survivors that now serves victims of human trafficking and other atrocities.

“It is the people to whom we owe nothing, as Helen Bamber put it, whose treatment reveals the quality of our humanity, our spirit, our social fabric,” Thompson wrote in an email. “I have an adopted son, a refugee from Rwanda, and the most important thing about him is that joining his family has made us all prosperous in every way.”

Folk singer and activist Peggy Seeger, who appears on the album, said that the power of Jones’ album lies in its ability to paint vivid pictures. “It’s so easy to discount, when you see so many refugees, a personal story — and these are personal stories,” she said of the album’s 13 songs. “Diana’s record is a relentless hammering house of how we ignore a vast body of people who have lived through the consequences of human cruelty and madness.”

Backed by Mansfield on the mandolin and fiddle, the song “Where We Are” is narrated by the older of two brothers who were taken from their parents and detained on the border of the United States and Mexico: “My brother There is a child, he does not ‘ absolutely did not understand / freedom is the freedom outside the chain-link wall.’

“We Believe You,” the album’s centerpiece, was inspired by the testimony of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat to Congress, detailing the inhumane conditions she witnessed at the border.

I believe your eyes are tired of crying
And for all the reasons you said you came here
I believe you lost your mother and your father
And can’t sleep on the concrete floor

Jones expressed this lament in an ornate alto, his words punctuated by the soft strings of Richard Thompson’s electric guitar. Steve Earl, Thompson and Seeger alternately sing those verses, returning to testify with Jones on the song’s final verse and chorus.

As Jones explained, “It’s important to have people in our lives who believe in us, especially those who are suffering—people who, in this case, want a safe haven and ultimately, a home. for being demonic or ‘other’.”

Written from Underneath History, “Song to a Refugee” sees Jones firmly in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, with much of the oppressed. “Dust Bowl Ballad.” One of the most powerful things about the record is how, tracks like “I Wait for You” and “Mama Hold Your Baby,” focus on the voices of expatriate women. Talking about her protagonist in the song “Ask a Woman”, Jones asks, “What is it like for a mother to pick up her child and walk through the desert and across the border without any protection? start?”

“Being a refugee,” Thompson wrote, “simply underscores and exaggerates areas where all women are already challenged – not being heard, not being educated, not being paid. Yes, no power.”

Jones wrote and recorded material for “Song to a Refugee” when President Donald Trump was in office. But the nightmare realities the album exposed are just as poignant today.

“It’s such a big problem that it needs to be tackled in smaller ways,” Seeger said, referring to the global migration crisis. “But short roads are not short. It’s not a small album.”

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