She Was Deeply Moved by Refugees’ Stories. So She Told Them in Song.
Originally Published in The New York Times
Bill Friskics-Warren – June 7, 2021
Credit…Erinn Springer for The New York Times
Diana Jones is known as a singer-songwriter of uncommon empathy, an astute observer of the human condition whose heart goes out to those who suffer and are oppressed.
Since her 1997 debut, Jones has crafted indelible narratives from the point of view of, among others, a battered woman who contemplates turning a gun on her abuser and of a coal miner trapped underground while writing what would prove to be his last letter to his wife.
Released overseas last year, her latest project, “Song to a Refugee” (due Friday), lends compassion to the struggles of immigrants fleeing terror and persecution in their homelands.
Produced with David Mansfield, whose uncluttered Neo-Appalachian arrangements deepen the pathos of her lyrics and vocals, Jones’s record is an inadvertent concept album. It evolved rapidly, after a bout of writer’s block, during a flurry of songwriting triggered by the horrors she witnessed in news stories from the United States border with Mexico and beyond.
“I was trying to make sense of what was happening, first of all for myself,” Jones, 55, explained. She was speaking by phone from her home in Manhattan’s West Village, describing her response to daily accounts of the treatment of immigrants, most of them people of color.
At the same time, I felt this responsibility to report on what was happening,” she added. “I wanted to boil things down to one small voice because the more personal something is, the harder it is to look away.”
Jones, who was adopted at birth and raised on Long Island, N.Y., comes by her empathy naturally. “I was always searching for something, a face or a home, anything to connect with,” she said of her early pursuit of her family of origin. “I was also without a home when I was 15 years old. I never lost sight of what it means to have food to eat and a roof over my head. I have gratitude for physical safety every day.”
Her latest project received unexpected early encouragement from someone with a very different background: the actress Emma Thompson. The two women met, coincidentally, in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where they struck up a conversation about their mutual commitment to human rights. Shortly afterward, Jones wrote “I Wait for You,” a song about a mother from Sudan who seeks asylum in England, hoping to be reunited with her children eventually.
Thompson had served on the board of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a British organization originally established to care for Holocaust survivors that now serves victims of human trafficking and other atrocities.
“It’s the people to whom we owe nothing, as Helen Bamber said, whose treatment reveals our humanity, our spirit, the quality of our social fabric,” Thompson wrote in an email. “I have an adopted son, a refugee from Rwanda, and what is most important to say about him is that his joining the family made us all immeasurably richer in every way.”
The folk singer and activist Peggy Seeger, who appears on the album, said the power of Jones’s LP is in its ability to paint vivid portraits. “It’s so easy to discount, when you see so many refugees, the individual story — and these are individual stories,” she said of the 13 songs on the album. “Diana’s record is a relentless hammering home of how we ignore a huge body of people who are living through the results of human cruelty and insanity.”
Backed by Mansfield on mandolin and fiddle, the song “Where We Are” is narrated by the older of two brothers who were taken from their parents and detained at the border of the United States and Mexico: “My brother is a baby, he doesn’t understand at all/Freedom, there’s freedom outside the chain-link wall.”
“We Believe You,” the album’s centerpiece, was inspired by congressional testimony from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, detailing the dehumanizing conditions she observed at the border.
I believe your eyes are tired of crying
and all the reasons you said you came here for
I believe you lost your mother and your father
and there ain’t no sleeping on a concrete floor
Jones intones this lament in an unadorned alto, her words cradled by the tender filigrees of Richard Thompson’s electric guitar. Steve Earle, Thompson and Seeger take turns singing the stanzas that follow, only to return to bear witness alongside Jones on the song’s final verse and chorus.
As Jones explained, “It’s important that we have people in our lives who believe us, especially for traumatized people — people who, in this case, are being demonized or ‘othered’ for wanting a safe haven and, eventually, a home.”
Written from the underside of history, “Song to a Refugee” finds Jones steadfastly siding with the oppressed, much in the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads.” One of the most powerful things about the record is how, on tracks like “I Wait for You” and “Mama Hold Your Baby,” the voices of migrant women are centered. Talking about her protagonist in the song “Ask a Woman,” Jones asks, “What must it be like for a mother to have to pick up her baby and start walking to another border, through deserts and with no safety at all?”
“Being a refugee,” Thompson wrote, “simply underlines and exacerbates the areas where all women are already challenged — not being heard, not being educated, not being paid, not having power.”
Jones wrote and recorded the material for “Song to a Refugee” when President Donald Trump was in office. But the nightmarish realities the album evokes speak as poignantly today.
“This is such a big problem that it has to be dealt with in small ways,” Seeger said, referring to the global migration crisis. “But the small ways are not small. This is not a small album.”
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