Sounding Childhood

Voice of the Helpless

This is a video recording of the complete song as sung by three new, talented children--Gabriel and Lily Kaehr, and William Backmeyer--on March 16, 2023, at Central United Methodist  and used with parental permission.

"Voice of the Helpless"
Though mammals such as mice and horses are addressed, most of the songs within Songs of Happy Life are focused on bird welfare, one entire section on Birds, in fact, so as to provide music “suitable for Bird Day” (7).  This 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, societies turned attention to the slaughter of birds for women’s hat fashions.  One song in Songs of Happy Life reflects this politically sensitive issue:  “The Voice of the Helpless” (No. 65) by Carlotta Perry reflects on the various birds of the air who are killed for sport and vanity.  In a haunting tune by L. B. Marshall, set in D minor, the song tells a poignant tale.   Reminiscent of sentimental ballads, its narrative opens with “a cry from the forests dim… a plaintive cry” personified (v. 1), and gradually verse 2 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 are described—“that little dead bird on your bonnet” and “the hummingbird on your velvet dress” (v. 5)—now set in this context of human tragedy, and all singers and listeners are urged to see connectedness with, not objectification of, the “other.”  Further, 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 the those other “mothers” as children attempt the reform of adults. Turner suggests that animal-welfare advocates turned to bird protection because of birds’ important role in limiting insects, thus, pursued only to protect humans (125).  While acknowledging Victorians’ growing appreciation for the web of life, Turner ultimately suggests egocentric motives behind this campaign where one could and should also see altruism and diminished anthropocentrism.  The RSPCA’s Bands urged children to think beyond their own needs and wishes, using concern for birds as a powerful metaphor of the delicate balance of human-animal existence, and that their choices of play and dress will have far-reaching consequences on the greater world.  This was not an unimportant lesson to take into adulthood when facing the larger battles of animal exploitation.
                I am using the British, first edition to Songs of Happy Life. Quite by accident, I discovered that the second, American edition (1898) had replaced “The Voice of the Helpless” with a much more innocuous song about a girl enjoying the daisies (“Marjorie”) for its No. 65.  This is one of only a few changes made between editions. I suspect the intense, guilt-ladden, politically charged “The Voice of the Helpless” had upset at least American audiences, and it was dropped.  Indeed, the issue of bird feathers on ladies’ hats was an intense one in turn-of-the-century America, with the Everglades egret driven nearly to extinction by plume hunter: 5 million birds a year.  The Lacey Bird and Game Act of 1900 made such killings illegal (see PBS: Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea, 2010,, accessed July 2013).


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