Thursday 26 January 2023

The Gulls of Havana

 The MS St. Louis was an ocean liner that left Germany in May of 1939 carrying 937 Jewish refugees.  After not being permitted to land in Cuba, USA, or Canada, the ship returned to Europe where 255 of the passengers were to die in the Holocaust.

"We just saw the coast guard boats surround us in Miami to make sure that we wouldn't even come close to the border, to shore, so that was out.  So we saw the lights of Miami, we saw the lights of America, and that was it."
Gerda Blachmann Wilchfort, St. Louis passenger and Holocaust survivor

"While every sympathy was felt with the unfortunate position in which the refugees in question found themselves, it was regretted that it was not possible to recommend their admission en bloc into Canada."
O.D. Skelton, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs

 For more information, please see:



The Gulls Of Havana

Lyrics and music 2023 by Marion Parsons

Nineteen thirty nine on the MS St. Louis
Some nine hundred exiles to wander at sea
Adrift in the doldrums of law and suspicion
Forbidden to land on the shores of the free

The gulls of Havana were circling and wailing
The lights of Miami flung jewels on the foam
The Halifax harbour just two days beyond us
And we turned to go
We turned to go back
Go back to the havoc that once was our home

We'd felt the ground sinking, we smelled the storm coming
In pillars of smoke and in splinters of glass
We said our goodbyes and we made for the lifeboat
To save what we could of our lives and our past

Two weeks on the ocean and spirits were rising
"Mein Herr" from the captain, and Strauss from the band
Till May's gentle morning, a breath from the beaches
Our names on the list and our papers in hand

Tomorrow, they tell us, then maybe tomorrow
The promised land told us to get back in line
With sympathies due for unfortunate cases
They could not admit us en bloc at this time


Monday 16 December 2019

Kindly Light

This is based on a story my father often told about his first night on a troopship leaving Canada for the Second World War (December 16, 1940).  The ship traveled with its lights off at night to avoid detection by the enemy.


Aboard the Louis Pasteur as she left Pier 21
The waving hankies vanished into grey December sea
We were drilled and shined and ready, we were willing, we were young
The Blitz of '40 calling, and a motherland in need.
But night had fallen hard upon me, lonely, blind, and cold
I wandered to the railing with a hymn to brace my soul:

     Lead, kindly light, amid th'encircling gloom,
     Lead Thou me on.
     The night is dark and I am far from home,
     Lead Thou me on.
    Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
    The distant scene; one step enough for me.

And through the wind and darkness, I heard voices backing mine
I guess at least a dozen, though I never did see who
"D'you know Old Rugged Cross?" came a whisper down the line
And so we kept on singing for another verse or two.
And whether we were thinking of that hill so far away
Or little towns behind us, or the price that we might pay:

     Lead, kindly light, amid th'encircling gloom,
     Lead Thou me on.
     The night is dark and I am far from home,
     Lead Thou me on.
    Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
    The distant scene; one step enough for me.

And each man had his favourite and we sang them all by heart
The notes of home and heaven 'gainst the drone of engine noise
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and then How Great Thou Art
The words I'd sung so many times with Isa and the boys.
Until at last we stumbled to our hammocks down below
A little more like brothers and a little less alone:

     Lead, kindly light, amid th'encircling gloom,
     Lead Thou me on.
     The night is dark and I am far from home,
     Lead Thou me on.
    Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see
    The distant scene; one step enough for me.

  • The story is based on an excerpt from the unfinished manuscript Take Post by H. Jack and Harold J. Parsons, which reads as follows:
'We left Halifax on a cold, cloudy day and after a few hours we were out of sight of land and tossing on a gray sea.  it was the first experience of the ocean for most of us.  That evening I wandered to the stern of the ship and it was very cold and very dark.  I felt very alone and began to sing "Lead kindly light amid encircling gloom." To my surprise, other voices joined in.  Then a voice from the darkness asked did I know "The Old Rugged Cross."  So it came next and I would guess that at least a dozen voices were involved.  We must have had at least a half-hour of old favourites sung by memory.  Who the hidden singers were I had no idea.'
  • "Isa and the boys" refers to my father's first wife, Isa Orser, and their oldest sons, Doug and Wally Parsons. 
  • The verses (music and lyrics) are (c) 2019 by Marion Parsons.  The chorus is a public domain hymn "Lead Kindly Light", lyrics composed 1833 by John Henry Newman, set to the melody Sandon.

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.