With her new release, Song To A Refugee, Diana Jones brings her signature brand of storytelling to the worldwide refugee crisis. The UK’s Guardian/Observer calls Song To A Refugee “a record for our time.” This powerful song cycle reflects renewed empathy for, and common cause with the plight of refugees. “None of us know where our footsteps will fall,” Jones suggests.
From a woman walking miles to the US border carrying her child, to the young children separated from their parents fleeing their homeland, Jones gives an immediacy to the stories of our time while illuminating the more generic themes within. Song To A Refugee artfully considers the times we live in, speaks for those often without a voice and encourages a humanitarian response.
The first single, “We Believe You” features performances by fellow songwriters Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger, who know how hard it is to craft songs as unassuming and potent as this. “I believe the gang said they would kill you,” Earle sings in the second verse. “I believe you were starving in the desert,” Thompson sings in the third. “We believe you walked till you could not walk,” chimes in Seeger.
In early 2018, Jones arrived back in New York City after one of her European tours, ready to start writing after a long dry spell. “I was in that place where an artist has to be to create: empty and lost,” she recalls. Walking through Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, she bumped into the actress Emma Thompson, “who was very nice about my delight in meeting her.” A few months later Jones came back from a tour in the Midwest, and ran into Emma Thompson again.
Thompson told her about the Helen Bamber Foundation, a London human rights organization that works with asylum seekers. Their website featured a video of a woman who’d left her children behind in Sudan to seek asylum in the U.K., because that was the only way to save them. Jones’s song “I Wait for You,” based on that woman, “came so fast it surprised me.”
Stories came to her from all directions that summer. A torrent of families separated at the US/Mexico border, detention camps all over the world, mothers and fathers everywhere carrying their babies, fleeing death. “These stories seem to have been a confluence of my emotional experience as an adoptee and what was happening at worldwide borders during the summer of 2018,” she says. “All I could do was begin with one voice, telling the stories one song at a time helped me sleep at night.”
When Jones realized she had a full book of songs, she asked multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield to co-produce the album and play on it. (Mansfield was a key member of Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and the composer for the soundtrack of Songcatcher, one of Jones’ favorite movies). Jones sings and plays acoustic guitar on all but one of the album’s songs, while Mansfield adds guitar, mandolin, violin and/or dulcimer. Jason Sypher adds bass to eight songs, and other contributions come from accordionist Will Holshouser, bassist Joe DeJarnette, pianist Mark Hunter, harmony singers the Chapin Sisters, pianist Glenn Patscha, and guitarist Richard Thompson.
After the album was recorded and mixed, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez returned from a detention center in Texas and gave testimony saying, “I believed the women.” “She repeated it emphatically,” Jones recalls, “and I realized how important it is to be believed especially for a traumatized population.” As she wrote the powerful single, “We Believe You,” she had the voices of the other singers already in her head.
Since her 2006 breakthrough album, My Remembrance of You, Diana Jones has been a major literary voice in contemporary song. She is rooted in the Appalachian traditions of her birth family, and has proven unusually adept at distilling complicated cultural forces down to a particular person in a particular time and place. “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” for example, was based on a 1927 letter written by a dying West Virginia coal miner.
When Jones was reunited with her birth family in her twenties, she spent time with her Tennessee grandfather. “I decided to throw out my previous songs,” she says, “and go to the woods and ask my grandfather and my ancestors for help.” That decision yielded such powerful songs as “Pretty Girl” and “Pony,” which came from a story told by her grandfather about children removed from their families to go to Indian Schools.
She drew the attention of critics, DJs—the BBC’s Bob Harris became a big champion—as well as other musicians. Jones opened for Peggy Seeger at Chicago’s Old Time School of Folk Music. Joan Baez recorded “Henry Russell’s Last Words” on Day After Tomorrow, the Grammy-nominated 2008 album produced by Steve Earle. Earle invited her to do several shows with him, and Richard Thompson invited Jones to open his UK/EU tour, which began their friendship.
With subsequent studio albums such as Better Times Will Come (2009), High Atmosphere (2011), Museum of Appalachia Recordings (2013) and Diana Jones Live in Concert (2016), that attention has continued to build.
With Song To A Refugee, Jones continues to give voice to the dispossessed, and bring awareness to social justice issues, taking her place in the lineage of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. “I believe we all want to get involved and give each other hope,” Jones says, “how can any of us look away?”