Friday, 28 October 2016

Sleep in Peace Children

This song is dedicated to the seventy-five children buried in an unmarked common grave in the Park Lawn cemetery of Etobicoke, Ontario.  Most were Barnardo girls or Barnardo boys: orphaned or destitute British children sent to Canada to become domestic servants or farmhands.  Others were babies born illegitimately to Barnardo girls.  Since this common grave came to light, descendants of other British home children have organized to research the children‘s identities and to erect a monument on the site.  Please see the links below for further information.

Lyrics (c) 2016 Marion Parsons; music Scottish traditional (Lochaber No More)

Where the slow rolling Humber flows down to the bay
As snow turns to springtime, as night turns to day
Amid the old graves of the loved and the blessed
Barnardo’s lost children are gathered to rest.
No footsteps are trodden, no cross and no stone
A sturdy young maple keeps watch all alone
So sleep weary daughter and sleep orphan boy
Sleep in peace children, and wake up in joy.

You sixty-one children, so ragged and thin
So far from your homeland, so far from your kin
The grey skies of England in memories fade
The green fields around you, a promise betrayed.
By sickness or danger, by violence, despair,
To lay down so early the burden you bear
So sleep lonely daughter and sleep wandering boy
Sleep in peace children, and wake up in joy.

You fourteen babes born into sorrow and shame
No grandmother’s wisdom, no father’s good name
No gentle voice easing the heartache and pain
The perils of labour, the prayers said in vain.
A few days or hours, a month or a year
With nought left behind but a name and a tear
So sleep infant daughter and sleep baby boy
Sleep in peace children, and wake up in joy.

You small pilgrims came to this cold promised land
With no one to turn to, with nothing in hand
In search of a family, a future, a home
But found only hardship and hearts made of stone.
And here where you lie in the potter’s plain field
You shall be remembered in granite and steel
So sleep precious daughter and sleep darling boy
Sleep in peace children, and wake up in joy.

For further information:

Toronto Star article

Monument project (British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Anne of Three Minutes

Lyrics by Marion Parsons © 2004; music traditional

A synopsis of L.M. Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" set to the Canadian fiddle tune "St. Anne's Reel".  Inspired by Scottish songwriter Adam McNaughtan, who set the plot of Macbeth to the fiddle tune Soldier's Joy, and Hamlet to Mason's Apron.  I recorded and released this song as a single in honour of the 100th anniversary of “Anne of Green Gables”.  The recording and mixing were done by Brennan Galley of Fierce Mule Productions; the guitar and vocal tracks are done by me; musical arrangement is by Bill Cameron and myself.  Promotional copies are available.

All the nice folk of Avonlea were quite horrified
When the Cuthberts, a spinster and her brother, had decided

To send for a boy from a mainland orphanage
To work around the farm and earn some sugar for his porridge.
Rachel Lynde said to Marilla, "Girl, you must be off your mind!
He’ll torch Green Gables, then he'll spike your water with strychnine!"

But the truth was even more shocking, when Matthew found a girlie

At the station in Bright River, name of Anne-with-an-E Shirley.

Now Marilla insisted, "This isn't what we ordered."

But Matthew was so captivated he implored her

Till she said Anne could stay on a sort of trial basis
And the child's zany antics put the Cuthberts through their paces.
Like mouthing off to Mrs. Lynde, "You're mean, and ugly too!"

Then "I shou'nt have said such wicked things, although they may be true."

She never said a prayer before, she was a perfect pagan

And she wished she had a fancy name, Cordelia or Megan.

Now when Anne met Diana Barry, on the moment's spur
They swore to be bosom friends while sun and moon endure

So they wrote gothic drivel and ice cream she tasted

Then she had Diana round for tea and got her good and wasted.

The cradlerobbing teacher and that horrid Josie Pye

She met at school and then was nicknamed carrots by Gil Blythe.

She told him just what he could do with carrots aforesaid

Then she took her little writing slate and wailed upon his head.

So Anne dyed her hair green and put liniment in the cake

And while being the lily maid got shipwrecked in the lake.

Matthew then put his oar in despite Marilla's peeves
He bought twenty pounds of sugar and puffiest of puffed sleeves.

Away to school in Charlottetown, she was her class' best
Then home to Avonlea and Matthew clutching at his chest

She tore down the For Sale sign, she'd stay and not forget

That tomorrow is a new day with no screwups in it yet.

What He Could Give

Lyrics and music by Marion Parsons © 2004

True story of the “Cellist of Sarajevo” who played in the streets to honour bombing victims; see below for further notes.

He put on his tie and tails for the concert of his life
And took a little folding stool into the empty square
He tried the tender cello strings, he drew the horsehair tight
A rich and clean adagio came haunting through the air.

    And he played for the opera, for beauty torn apart
    He played for Sarajevo, to mend her riven heart
    And he played for the innocent, the merciful, the brave
    And for the spirits of the lost, what he could give, he gave.

Since the ruin of the theatre, there was little to be done
Till he became a witness to the deadly mortar shell
That fell into a market where the crowd lined up for bread
And turned his gracious city to the capital of hell.


And on the crater left behind, for three weeks and a day
For every man and woman lost, for every child slain
Against the beat of sniper fire, his cello prayed for peace
And sang for all with ears to hear, to kindle hope again.


Vedran Smailovic was Sarajevo’s premier cellist before the seige of Sarajevo in 1992.  He witnessed a bombing that killed 22 civilians in a marketplace, and for the next 22 days, he put on a tuxedo and took his cello to the spot where the bomb had landed, and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. 

This is one of my two most requested songs (the other being Anne of Three Minutes) and has been performed by the Toronto a cappella trio Sweet Thyme.

Frederick Shortt's Lament

 Lyrics by Marion Parsons © 2002, music traditional

True story of an English “Barnardo Boy” who came to Canada as a farm labourer in the early 1900’s.

The waves that took my father’s ship left us a desperate house
Twas more than mother could hope to do to fill three empty mouths
My brother, he was too young to part, my sister was too dear
It fell on me to play the man, and I in my sixth year.

My mother said, “It won’t be far, twill be just for a while.
Be good, be strong, and say your prayers, just like on dear Wight Isle.”
She packed my clothes and my Testament, I put aside my toys
And knocked upon the doorway of Barnardo’s Home for Boys.

    How little did my mother know
    When she begged me, “Fred, don’t cry,”
    The waves would carry me off as well
    That this was our goodbye.

Those lonely months on the mainland, my home and friends I missed
Until the day I found my name at the head of the Canada list
I’d go across the ocean wide to be a farmer’s ward
And sell my small hands’ labour for my schooling, bed, and board.

They brought me pen and paper the morning that I sailed
My news and my fondest wishes to family then were mailed
With a trunk and blessing for each of us, we queued up at the dawn
To board that good ship’s steerage, and set off for Saint John.

    How little did my mother know
    When she led me from her door
    My fortune lay in Canada
    I’d ne’er see England more.

We rode the train to Toronto town, amazed by miles of trees
The farmers came from all around to pick what boy they’d please
I went to a St. Thomas farm, where I spent some decent years
Until my boss sold off his land, left me with nought but tears.

My next boss lived in Utterson, George Truesetter by name
I worked like hell to earn my keep, but got his belt and blame
His children all went off to school, but I was left behind
The cows and pigs I tended were the best friends I could find.

    How little did my mother know
    When she gave me to their care
    The lands that I would travel in
    The burdens I would bear.

As soon as I was old enough I took my clothes and pay
And married sweet little Alice Greer, one bright and blessed day
We built a house on her parents’ land, right here by Skeleton Lake
We cleared the trees and bred the stock for all our children’s sake.

My boys work hard and do their share, but I won’t let them miss school
My girls will never be lone or shamed, though they don’t know wealth or jewel
And as for me and my Alice, well, we’re better off than then
These walls are humble but they’re my own, I’ll never leave again.

Fred Shortt was the great-grandfather of a friend on mine; his life story was related to me by his son via my friend and her father. I was pleased to be able to get a recording to the grandfather (Fred's son) shortly before his death.

I have a special affection for this song as it was the first of the current generation of songs I'm writing, i.e., based in true history and drawing on traditional motifs and melodies.

Set to the melody "Tramps and Hawkers".  There is a good article about the Barnardo "home children" here: Winnipeg Free Press.

Comfortable Shoes Blues

 Lyrics and music by Marion Parsons © 2003

This one was written on a train in Germany; it’s not a true story, just having some fun with blues cliches and queer cliches.  The line “closer to fine” refers to a great Indigo Girls song by that title.  The music is a standard 12 bar blues.

Woke up this morning, an aching in my head
Woke up this morning, and in an empty bed
If I ain’t got no woman, I’ll get a cat instead.

My shoes they may be comfy, but all my nights are free
My shoes they may be comfy but I’m crying in my tea
I let a bald headed woman make a fool out of me.

Gonna find another love, babe, treat me better than you
And when I find another love, babe, I’ll stick to her like glue
Cause I ain’t closer to fine, babe, I’m just closer to blue.

That girl she stole my honey, she left me crying you see
That girl she stole my honey, she left me sad’s can be
Cause when she stole my pretty baby, I wish she’d stolen me.

Who Will Watch Over You?

Lyrics  (c) 2008 by Marion Parsons; music traditional

This song is dedicated to Katelynn Sampson, a young Toronto girl who was abused and murdered in foster care: Toronto Star story

The tune is Louis Collins (Angels Laid Him Away) by Mississippi John Hurt; it may also be known as the tune Utah Philipps used for Collie Wilkins.

 Little Katelynn held her wounds and cried
She was a ghost long before she died
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
Doors are closed, hell is out of view
Oh who will be watching over you?

Mother thought she had a friend
Never trust another soul again
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
Tried to keep you from the life she knew
Oh who will be watching over you?

Family judge was short on time
Had no notion of a life of crime
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
One more crack, another fallen through
Oh who will be watching over you?

Twenty years a cop he's been
This young body is the worst he's seen
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
Come too late, not a thing to do
Oh who will be watching over you?

Parkdale church is crowded tight
Singing "they are precious in his sight"
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
Went and broke a city's heart in two
Oh who will be watching over you?

Who will watch over you?
When doors are closed and hell is out of view
Oh who will be watching over you?


Cecilia Delory

 Lyrics by Marion Parsons © 2003, music traditional

True story of a Prince Edward Island’s family’s experience of the Spanish Flu; see below for further notes.

My name is Cil Delory, though a Cullen I was born
Here on Prince Edward Island, where the waters meet the morn
I’ll tell you of my girlhood days in simple words and true
And of the deadly fever that we called the Spanish Flu.

The year was nineteen eighteen, and my age was seventeen
I had two older sisters, there were nine more after me
And had our mother lived to see the springing of the year
There would have been another babe to christen and to rear.

Now as the war across the sea drew to its bitter end
There rose an epidemic that claimed as many men
The ships that brought our valiant boys back home again from war
They also brought the new disease onto our peaceful shore.

The place where I was teaching school shut down to slow the spread
My brother Tom was freed from class, he went to work instead
Down at the docks of Charlottetown, while loading up the freight
He caught the fever and the chills and felt the grip of fate.

Eugene and Art and Gertie too took sick within the week
Brave cousin Maggie came to help although our hopes were bleak
Our mother spent her restless days by her poor children’s side
Alas the day she joined them in a sickbed cool and wide.

The tenth day of November, I was tending the young ones
The doctor said the end was near,  I went to her at once
My father held her weakening hand, she laboured for her air
The last rays of the setting sun spun gold into her air.

The undertakers in those times were working night and day
So Doctor Leadwell laid her out for just one night of wake
And though no neighbour dared to cross our fever-stricken door
Papa brought us one by one to see her face once more.

Morning on the way to church, word spread to everyone
The peace was signed in Europe and the victory was won
We heard the pipes and trumpets at their gayest and their best
As we laid our mother in the quiet grave to rest.

The worst was over for the boys, and Gertie’s hair grew back
Aunt Laura came and stayed awhile to help make up our lack
The neighbours they pitched in to reap the praties and the grain
By these good folk and grace of God we turned to life again.

Cecelia Delory's memoirs are published in "Close to the Folks" by Reginald Pendergast, a book of PEI oral history. When visiting PEI I met the book's publisher; after sending her the lyrics I learned that she was a daughter of Gertie (narrator's sister) and that this song would be circulated among the family.

The melody is "The Garden Where the Praties Grow", or you may recognize it as the tune Pat Cooksey used for "The Sick Note". I sing it unaccompanied.  Praties are potatoes.