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A Young Composer Inspired by One Book, One Philadelphia's 'Orphan Train'

Composer TJ Cole wrote "O Children, Dear Children," to accompany the Jan. 22nd launch of the 2015 One Book, Philadelphia program.

Curtis Institute of Music composition student TJ Cole is only 21, but she already has a string of impressive commissions under her belt. Last year she was chosen to write a piece of music based on the Free Library's 2015 One Book, One Philadelphia selection - Orphan Train, a novel by Christina Baker Kline.

It’s the story of 91-year-old Vivian, who lost her family as a child, and 17-year-old Molly, a foster child who also knows what it’s like to be alone and unwanted.  

Vivian’s story is based on the real-life migration of an estimated one-quarter million homeless and abandoned children. Orphan trains carried carloads of children from East Coast cities to rural towns from the mid 1800s until 1929.  

Inspired by a song the young orphans sang as they headed from the East Coast to small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond, Cole composed "O Children, Dear Children," which premiered in January at the first event in a series for the One Book, One Philadelphia program.

See the "One Book, One Philadelphia" kickoff event and hear the performance of "O Children, Dear Children,"sung by Singing City Children’s Choir under the direction of Steven Fisher, and accompanied by cellist Chen Cao, and violinist Gergana Haralampieva - both Curtis students. The piece begins at about 1 hour and 20 minutes into the video.

TJ Cole’s take on 'Orphan Train' and her approach to her composition.

Radio Script:

A song sung by children in transit inspired a composition commemorating their fate. WRTI’sMerideeDuddleston has more.

Meridee Duddleston: Most Americans may never have heard of the trains that carried carloads of orphaned and abandoned children from the East Coast to the Midwest between the mid-1800s and 1929.  This year’s Free Library One Book, One Philadelphia choice weaves that story with one of a modern 17-year-old foster child from Maine.  The book is Christina Baker Kline’s novel, Orphan Train. And as the starting point for her One Book composition titled “O Children, Dear Children," Curtis Institute of Music student TJ Cole focused on a musical interlude during the long ride inland.

TJ Cole: My inspiration for the piece came from a song that the kids actually sang on the train when they would go from the east coast to the Midwest and the author actually uses that song in her book, too. 

MD: What were some of the words from that song?

TJ COLE: The lyrics are: 
From the city’s gloom to the country’s bloom
Where the fragrant breezes sigh
Bring up the music
From the city’s blight to the greenwood bright
Where the birds of summer fly
O Children, dear Children
Young,  happy,  pure….

MD:  The song of hope allowed Cole to widen the reach of One Book, by bringing in the Singing City Children’s Choir.

TJ COLE: And then I thought if I use the lyrics for the song, then I could get a children’s choir in on this. Then, it would be accessing another part of the city, and that’s what One Book is about – connecting the whole city. So that’s how I decided to write the piece.

MD: The lyrics belie the reality to come. After lining up by height to be chosen by families in rural towns, most of the girls and boys weren’t bound for adoption. Instead they spent their childhoods as indentured servants -  working the farm or providing childcare in return for simply being taken in.

Now in its 13th year,One Book, One Philadelphia, has drawn on the shared act of reading to build connections, stimulate conversation, and expose everyone to different viewpoints and experiences.