Phil & Alison (I)

Riders on the Orphan Train — Woody Guthrie Folk Festival

The Orphan Train

Pair Recounts Dark Historical Chapter in Story & Song

This was by far the most well-attended pro­gram the library has ever offered […]. Everyone who attended was moved, edu­cated and enter­tained […]. Your pro­gram truly made an impact on our community.

Between 1854 and 1929, the Children’s Aid Society (and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital) removed over a quar­ter mil­lion orphans and unwanted chil­dren from large metrop­o­lises (includ­ing New York City, Boston, and Chicago) and gave them away at train sta­tions across the US. Organizer Charles Loring Brace, a New York City min­is­ter, con­ceived the pro­gram to rid the city of home­less street chil­dren. The impulse behind the “Orphan Train” was char­i­ta­ble, but its his­tory was marked by both hor­ror and hope.

Novelist and human­i­ties scholar Alison Moore and musi­cian Phil Lancaster ini­tially learned about this dark chap­ter in his­tory by way of the 1995 PBS doc­u­men­tary The American Experience: The Orphan Trains.

We were so moved by the doc­u­men­tary we saw on the Orphan Trains that we each wrote a bal­lad […] and began to research the mate­r­ial […]. We were priv­i­leged to take part in […] a reen­act­ment of an orphan train ride from Springdale to Van Buren, Arkansas. We […] rode the train per­form­ing the songs we had writ­ten. The expe­ri­ence of see­ing this event unfold visu­ally [in the] way we had imag­ined it […] was extraordinary.

The pair have been pre­sent­ing a 90-minute multi-media pro­gram at libraries, schools and uni­ver­si­ties, and arts fes­ti­vals all over the US for sev­eral years. They have been awarded a num­ber of grants along the way. This past July, they pre­sented Riders on the Orphan Train at the Okemah Public Library as part of the 16th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. The elec­tri­cal power had been knocked out for the entire town shortly before they were to begin due to a sud­den thun­der­storm, but a fes­ti­val­goer parked out­side the library had a gen­er­a­tor and some exten­sion cords in his truck. He kindly offered them up, allow­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion to go forward. 


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About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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