How do you explain the tragedy of Palestinian history in just two and half minutes? How do you convey to those new to the subject what has happened to the Palestinian people over the last 70 years? Is it possible to galvanise concern and change people’s perceptions just through writing a folk song?
It’s a challenge taken up by Jim Boyes, one third of the English Folk acapella group Coope Boyes and Simpson. Their name may sound like a firm of rural England estate agents, but over the last 23 years, and across a dozen albums, Barry Coope Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson have mined the radical stream in the English folk tradition with their arrangements of traditional songs and their own compositions. They are especially well-known for their work relating to the First World War and the experience of ordinary conscripts.
‘Children of Palestine’ is an outstanding and moving addition to their already impressive repertoire. It pulls no punches in presenting the Palestinian story from the Nakba to the Occupation and the wars against Gaza. This is no soppy folk song calling for peace and harmony. This is an angry cry of injustice and betrayal set to a traditional folk melody and sung with the trio’s trademark robust harmonies.
Just before setting off on a short tour of the Midlands to promote their latest (and they say last) studio album Coda, Jim Boyes talked to me about the new song and how it came to be written. Jim also gave me permission to reproduce the full lyric. You can listen to an extract on itunes.
‘Children of Palestine’ by Jim Boyes
Oh where are you now – Children of Palestine?
Where are you now, oh where can you be?
Pursued over borders so far from our homeland
Forced over the borders or into the sea
Oh where are your villages Children of Palestine?
Where are your villages, where can they be?
Flattened by bulldozers, covered in concrete
Gone from our heritage, ne’er to be seen
Oh where are your olive groves Children of Palestine?
Where are your peach trees – where can they be?
Supplanted by forestry, playgrounds and car parks
Haunted by ghosts in a forgotten dream
And what of your homeland Children of Palestine?
What of your homeland, come tell it to me
Bombarded by missiles, lit up with bright phosphorous
Walled in and cut off, ne’er to be free
And what of your future Children of Palestine?
What of your future, what may that be?
Oh that’s the wrong question, while others betray us
That’s the wrong question as you plainly see
And what of your history, Children of Palestine?
I see your history deep in your eyes
Written in blood as if carved on a tombstone
Written in blood and covered in lies.
Interview with Jim Boyes
Robert Cohen: What drew you to the subject of Palestine?
Jim Boyes: I have lived in Belgium for the last 5 years but since the early nineties worked (with Coope Boyes and Simpson) on projects for Peace Concerts Passchendaele and more recently with the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ in Ieper. The museum, since its inception, has always widened its scope to include other conflicts which have (sadly but inevitably) taken place since 1918. Some years ago they featured a series of photographs from Palestine and it struck me that although I had seen news reports all my life on the Palestinian situation, I knew lamentably little about its origins. To rectify my lack of knowledge, I followed up some references on the internet which led me to the work of Ilan Pappe. I knew at that stage I would have to write a song – but where to start. The idea lay at the back of my mind for some considerable time.
More recently the museum, in conjunction with the library in Ieper, put on a series of interviews (with musical interludes) with authors and poets and I was asked to sing some songs for one of these performances. The first writer in the series was Ghayath Almadhoun who was also at the time writer in residence at the museum. Ghayath’s poems and writing are very impressive and most likely prompted me the write ‘Children of Palestine’ when it came to selecting material for the CD.
RC: How did you go about writing the song?
JB: My usual song writing method is to fumble about on the piano (or guitar) and / or stare at a blank sheet of paper until inspiration arrives (or not) – this was no different.
RC: You must have known that just choosing this subject matter and showing solidarity would itself invite controversy. Did that make you hesitate at all?
JB: Being controversial has never been a problem. If people react, it shows that they have been listening and if it causes them to look at events in a different way then fair enough. However, I do find the recent confusion between criticism of the state of Israel and antisemitism disturbing.RC: The tune is traditional, I recognised it straight away. In what other songs is it mostly commonly used?
JB: The tune is one I associate with ‘The Cutty Wren’ a traditional song associated with a winter calendar custom.
RC: Did you write the words first and then look for a tune or choose the tune to help you structure the lyric?
JB: To use a cliché – that is a very interesting question – I’d actually not thought about it. I had probably written a line which prompted the call and response structure of the song and that then sorted out the other verses.
I think the ‘where are you now?’ question must have come from talking to Ghayath. His father left Palestine (presumably in 1948) and ended up in a Syrian refugee camp where Ghayath spend his early years – going to university in Damascus. He now lives in Sweden and earlier this year became a Swedish citizen
RC: What do you think is the effect of marrying a traditional English folk tune with this subject matter? I’m reminded of Bob Dylan borrowing folk tunes heard from Martin Carthy and others to write topical protest songs like Masters of War.
JB: Using traditional tunes is somewhat of a rarity for me, but recently I have used a West Country tune for a song about a West Country soldier who was killed in WW1 and I closely adapted ‘The Banks of the Nile’ for the performance about my Grandfather’s story in the same conflict. There were so many parallels and it is such a good tune that it was too good to miss.
I think you have to be careful if the traditional tune (or songs which are associated with the tune) would distract from the theme of a new song.
RC: What’s the role of an artist in a conflict like Israel/Palestine? What do you hope to achieve by writing and singing the song?
JB: If after hearing the song people are prompted (like I was by the photographs in the museum) to find out more about the history then that would be a good. But I also find Seamus Heaney’s comment about writing (or performance) being like doing a ‘magic dance’ around a subject probably a more likely outcome
RC: You sing towards the end: “What of your future, what may that be?// Oh that’s the wrong question while others betray us” Who are you thinking of as betraying the Palestinians in this line?
JB: From before the turn of the 20th century – the West in general: the British, the UN, the USA etc. If you want a name, I find the recent role of Tony Blair as ‘Middle East Peace Envoy’ particularly suspect.
RC: The final lines are especially powerful. “I see your history, deep in your eyes// Written in blood as if carved on a tombstone// Written in blood and covered in lies”
Tell me what you see as the lies that have covered Palestinian history?
JB: I know the history of the region is very complex but the denial of the forced expulsion of the arab population would strike me as the biggest lie.
RC: What reaction has the song had when you’ve performed it live?
JB: We are starting a tour with the new CD at Musicport in Whitby on 23 October so so far it has hardly been performed live at all. We will see…
RC: How do you think progress can be made for the Palestinians? Do you think cultural and trade boycotts are a legitimate tactic?
JB: Cultural and trade boycotts were very effective in the opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. I don’t see why the same logic should not apply.
RC: The album is sub titled ‘a concluding event’. Why are Coope Boyes Simpson calling it a day?
JB: Although when I moved to Belgium, moving backward and forwards across the channel was not much of a problem, further down the line travelling is not the best way that we want to spend our time. We all have existing and new projects which will keep us active musically, but an end to touring was inevitable.
May 2017 will see Coope Boyes and Simpson embark on their farewell tour at venues throughout the UK. The tour will be a celebration of their career, and will feature material from across their entire repertoire.
You may also be interested to read this blog post: Comparing Nazis to Jews? Leon Rosselson explains ‘The Ballad of Rivka & Mohammed’