Note to readers: The purchase link above is for a slightly version of 800 Voices than I received for review. My copy, (which appears to be out of print), has a different cover, and three of the songs are different. I have acquainted myself about the differences as well as I could, and I am confident that my review is valid for the available version of the album.
You might say that 800 Voices is an album that is not appropriate for the holiday season, with its heavy subject matter. I’ve had the album for about a month, but there were other promises made, and other things I had to get to first. But this album is more than one man’s story; Danny Ellis has created a set of songs that is deeply personal, but is also a gift to any who have suffered as he has. So I think it fits the time of year perfectly, as we remember those less fortunate and reach out to help.
These are original songs, as they must be, but the music is deeply rooted in Irish folk styles. Ellis sings in one of the most emotive high tenors I have ever heard. The songs are based around Ellis’ acoustic guitar, and there are sometimes additional acoustic guitar, banjo, and/or mandolin. Then add some combination of flute, pipes, and fiddle over the top at times. Add a rhythmic kick from the bodhran or other percussion on some songs, and you have music that is powerfully driven, even on the ballads. That drive sometimes has a rock flavor to it, which is only fitting for a man who describes secretly listening to the Beatles in 1962 in the song Radio. The arrangements are wonderfully varied, and Ellis has a great sense of what each song needs to best convey the emotion of the piece.
And then there are the words. For my Irish readers, all I need to say is Artane Industrial School. The school closed in 1969, but I dare say they still remember it in Ireland to this day. After all, the official investigation into the institutionalized abuse of children, an investigation that included Artane as well as the Magdalene Laundries, only delivered its final report in the last couple of years. Artane was run by an organization called the Christian Brothers. Danny Ellis was an inmate at Artane from 1955-63. Almost fifty years later, Ellis is finally able to sing about his experiences there, and 800 Voices is his story. I said that Danny Ellis was an inmate, but his only crime was to be born poor, the child of a broken marriage; I use the term inmate rather than student to describe how the children were treated. I would not blame Ellis for delivering an angry album of songs filled with graphic descriptions of cruelty, but this is not that album. Ellis does not, can not, forgive everything that happened to him there. But 800 Voices is a work of remarkable grace.
The album begins with the song 800 Voices, which tells of Ellis’ arrival at Artane, and closes, in the version I have, with The Day I Left Artane. In between, gives a series of descriptions of the life he lived there, as he remembers it now. A line here or there tugs at the listeners heart, but Ellis never succumbs to self pity. We human beings make the best of whatever life sends us, no matter how harsh the conditions. So, in the song Tommy Bonner, Ellis tells us about a boy who inspired Ellis to sing, and mentions at the very end of the song the sense of abandonment he felt when Tommy Bonner turned 16 and left Artane. In Artane, boys were sometimes beaten so badly that they had to be hospitalized, a fact that Ellis mentions only once. But Artane had a boys band which played for the public, and made money for the school but never for the musicians. Still, if you were in the band, you couldn’t have any visible injuries, so you escaped the worst of the beatings. Ellis describes his audition in the song The Artane Boys Band, and Music For a Friend is about a time when Ellis got kicked out of the band, and what he went through to get reinstated. In these two songs, Ellis talks about Brother O’Connor, who ran the band, and Brother O’Driscoll . O’Driscoll in particular he remembers as “a bad tempered man”, but Ellis remembers both men in these songs for moments of kindness. Although both Who Trew Da Boot? and Kelly’s Gone Missing contain brief moments where your emotions fall through a trapdoor, both recount incidents which are largely humorous. Only one song on 800 Voices does not have words by Danny Ellis; he has created a musical setting for the poem The Stolen Child by W B Yeats. The child in the poem is stolen from the human world by the faery; here, the song serves as an apt metaphor for Ellis’ experiences.
Overall, this is a set of songs that I think Ellis had to sing and record, as part of his healing process even after all this time. The wounds to his spirit will never completely heal, but this is an important step. I would not blame Ellis after what he endured if he had lost his belief in God; I have seen accounts of other Artane survivors who reacted that way. But Ellis has kept his faith, and it may well have helped make this album possible. I am not very religious myself, but I wish to close this way: I pray that making this album and sending it out into the world has given Danny Ellis a measure of peace. Further, I pray that these songs may reach the ears, not only of other Artane survivors, but also of other abuse victims who may benefit from it. Finally, I would like to ask a favor of my readers: if, by some chance, you happen to know someone who is an Artane survivor, would you please let them know about this album? Thank you.
Danny Ellis: Tommy Bonner
Danny Ellis: Music For a Friend
Totally off topic, I would just like to let everyone know that Mary Bragg’s Kickstarter campaign is now over. She made her goal with 58 minutes left in her drive, so she will receive full funding for her new album. To all who helped, thank you.