Sounding Childhood

Voice of the Helpless

This song, "Voice of the Helplss," reflects late-century activism which, led by the RSPCA, the Association for the Protection of British Birds, and others, resulted in several Wild Birds’ Protection Acts (of 1872, 1876).   By the nineties, society turned attention to the slaughter of birds for women’s hat fashions.  Found in Songs of Happy Life (No. 65), its words are by Carlotta Perry and reflect on the various birds of the air who are killed for sport and vanity.  Set to a haunting tune by L. B. Marshall in D minor, this sentimental ballad reveals “a woodland tragedy:”        
                        ’Tis the cry of the orphan nestlings, ’Tis the wail of a bird that sings
                        His song of grace in the archer’s face, ‘Tis the flutter of broken wings… (v. 2)
If the archer, presumably adult, is the guilty party from afar, the third verse brings culpability to the very young girls who may sing this song:
                        Oh! Lovely, unthinking maiden, The wing that adorns your hat,
                        Has the radiance rare, that God placed there, But I see in place of that,
                        A mockery pitiful, deep, and sad… (v. 3)
Deepening the guilt, the fourth verse personifies this tragedy as a human one, the song now addressing a human mother who, it suggests, is not unlike an animal mother:
                        Oh! Mother you clasp your darling, Close to your loving breast;
                        Think of that other, that tender mother, Brooding upon her nest…
                        Does no sound touch your motherhood? (v.4)
Functional co-opting of nature for human vanity is described—“that little dead bird on your bonnet” and “the hummingbird on your velvet dress” (v. 5)—and compared to a human tragedy; all singers and listeners are urged to see connectedness with, not objectification of, the “other.”  Furthermore, they are forced to admit their personal culpability in a larger, societal problem: that their choice of fashion can have far-reaching moral implications.  Daughters in turn school their mothers to think of those other “mothers” as children attempt the reform of adults.

This version was sung as a solo by my daughter Annetta when she was twelve: she sings the final verse (only).

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