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Angeline Morrison sits with an autoharp on the beach, playing The Sorrow Songs

Angeline Morrison – The Sorrow Songs Interview

Angeline Morrison discusses her highly-anticipated album, The Sorrow Songs, and her hopes for greater diversity on the folk scene.

The Zoom line crackles. Angeline Morrison, shivering against the cold in her house in Cornwall, explains that as much as she’d love to chat, she doesn’t have a lot of time. She vanishes into the ether, reappears, then freezes entirely. This is a worry. I have a lot that I want to talk to Angeline about. Despite having the same agent and communicating a lot online, this is the first time we’ve actually met face-to-face (if Zoom counts as face-to-face), and I’ve been saving up my long list of questions for this apparently very brief moment.

In an ideal world, we’d be sitting across a table with mugs of hot liquid, digging deep into Angeline’s seismic new project, The Sorrow Songs. As she explains in this in-depth interview, the project is an exploration of the black experience in English folk music. It’s certainly not something to be taken lightly, and it’s definitely not something you want hampered by a dodgy Zoom line and limited time.

Thankfully, Angeline is a very kind and patient interviewee, and over the course of an hour, we managed to batten down the hatches and weather the digital storm that seemed determined to bring our conversation to an end. Here, then, is the Tradfolk Sorrow Songs interview – full details about this extraordinary new album, along with the singer’s recollections of being the only person of colour at her local folk club, and her thoughts on having recently been appointed to the EFDSS board.

If you’ve not heard of Angeline Morrison yet, you can expect to be hearing a lot more about her in the coming months. Start your journey here.

I wanted to think about black lives and experiences within these islands, and how that might translate into song.

Angeline Morrison
Angeline Morrison, The Sorrow Songs, on a beach in Cornwall.

Where are you chatting to me from?

From a cold, cold house in Cornwall. This is where I live.

But you’re from Birmingham originally, right?

Yes. I’ve lived here for about 16 years or so. It’s just a lovely place to be. I fell in love with the Obby Oss.

Did you? So you were down in Padstow, looking at the Obby Oss, and you thought, “This is where I want to be?”

I went to Padstow when I was about 16. I was just obsessed with trying to find ancient traditions that were still being practised. I found out about the Obby Oss and I had to see it. I absolutely fell in love with it. Have you been?

I’ve not been. It’s one of the things that I keep meaning to do.

I recommend it. If you can do it, take family and go early because there’s a special song the night before. Then follow the procession throughout the day. There’s a lot of drinking takes place, so by about 3pm, sometimes there’s a bit of shouting and scuffling, but by the evening it’s all lovely again. When you hear the beat of those drums, it goes right through you. It gets right into your heart… it’s so exciting. But be careful not to join in because you have to respect the Padstonians’ traditions. I have been told that they are not happy for you to join in the song or dance, but they’re very happy for you to watch and walk alongside.

Let’s get onto The Sorrow Songs. I first met you and heard about what you’re doing via Eliza Carthy‘s Folkroom on Clubhouse. You started singing these songs, and we were all astonished. That must’ve been the beginning of 2021. Since then, things have become a bit of a whirlwind for you, haven’t they?

Yes [laughs], you could certainly describe it as a whirlwind. How can I put this? The Sorrow Songs seems to be something that a lot of people are identifying with. It seems that, out of all the music I’ve made, this is the thing that has the most relevance. That’s wonderful for me because what I want is for people to connect on an emotional level, and that seems to be happening.

Can we hear any of it yet?

I’ve made two of the songs available temporarily on bandcamp and they are demo versions. Originally, I was reluctant to release any of it before the official release date, but the more I’ve been asked to talk about it and to share it, the more it seems not to make any sense for me to keep the songs back. So, I decided to release these two demos so that people could get a flavour of the project.

Just explain, for those that don’t know, what The Sorrow Songs is.

OK, well I was inspired by The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, written in 1903. Chapter 14 is called, “Of the Sorrow Songs”. Music features really heavily in this book, and this particular chapter is about spirituals. He writes about spirituals as a body of folk songs for enslaved black people and their descendants in America.

Reading about that, my first thought was, “Why do we not have a body of folk songs in the UK about the black experience here?” We have a historic black presence in these Islands that dates back to at least the Romans, and that’s only as far back as we have actual evidence – it could be way older than that. Who knows how far it dates back? But we do have this historic black population, and only a very tiny amount of awareness of their existence, and, as far as I was aware, no songs. Not even one. So, I began to wonder what an English spiritual might sound like. This was going through my mind. I wanted to think about black lives and experiences within these islands, and how that might translate into song.

Then I was lucky enough to be awarded an Alan James Creative Bursary by EFDSS. I spent a week at Cecil Sharp House, and it was really exciting. It was like a dream come true, because I was Artist In Residence for a week and I could use the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library as much as I wanted. I had to pack a lot into those five days, and one of the things that I did was to search for songs on the database which mentioned black characters. Now, this is really absorbing because I had to think of all sorts of different search terms, including words that I’d prefer not to use because they have horrible connotations, or words that we no longer use nowadays. I had to really find as many diverse words as I possibly could that might denote a black person or a person of colour.

For example, the word ‘Ethiopian’ was used to represent any black person – they didn’t actually have to be Ethiopian. ‘Indians’, interestingly, was also used to refer to black people, as well as people from India. So, there are very many words that I used in my searches. And I did find a lot of songs that mentioned black people, and that caused me to refine my search even futher, because I only found one or two songs where black people were not the butt of the joke, or represented in some really negative, stereotypical way.

I was looking for songs where the black person just got to be part of the action – a regular human.

Angeline Morrison

How many songs did you find in total, then?

Well, I didn’t actually count them. They were references to songs, or song titles, which I then didn’t look at because the title made it clear that the song wasn’t going to be the kind of thing I was looking for.

I was looking for songs where the black person got to be a part of the action – a regular human. I wanted a song where the character, who was obviously a black person, got to participate in the song on an equal footing to the white person. I wanted an equivalent to the traditional folk songs that we sing, that we know and love. I wanted something like that, that black people, or people who are English or British in non-traditional ways, could relate to. And I didn’t find anything like that. That said, I was only there for five days and I wasn’t searching all that time, so there’s a lot that I haven’t found. My search continues. If anybody knows of any songs, I’m really interested in any suggestions.

My theory is that it is not possible that there were never any of these songs. It is not possible that, with the black population that we have had, these songs never existed. Humans are song-making creatures. Wherever we go, we make music and we make songs. Also, a lot of the black people in history that have been researching and learning about these things have also been musicians and singers. So, I have a theory – and I don’t know that it’d ever be possible to prove – most likely it won’t be – but I wonder if a lot of the anonymous broadside ballads were written by black street singers and musicians, because it would’ve been a very obvious way for them to earn some money.

That’s a fascinating thought. One of my favourite albums of the last couple of decades was London Is The Place for Me. It was released by Honest Jon’s Records, which was, I think, run by Damon Albarn from Blur. Do you know that album?


That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because, obviously, those are songs from the Windrush generation, particularly people like Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner. Many of those songs are like broadside ballads. There’s one, for example, called ‘Victory Test Match’, by Lord Beginner, which is a song that depicts everything about a test cricket match that took place in 1950. It’s just like those boxing match songs that you find so often in the broadsides. Reportage, set to song. And there’s another one, ‘My Landlady’, which has the same sort of humour as a song like, ‘How Five and Twenty Shillings Were Expended In a Week’.

Although that sort of music is officially classed as Calypso, these are the songs of black, lived experience within these Islands. Maybe they’re only 70 years old, maybe they can’t be considered traditional, but I wonder why those songs – and I hope the answer to this isn’t horrifically obvious – but I wonder why those songs have never made it into our folk singing culture as well.

I’m really, really so interested in that, because – for me – those songs are absolutely part of folk music culture. These were folk songs that were made by the folk living here. For me, there is no question that those Calypso groups and singers were part of the folk song tradition.

To return to The Sorrow Songs, the way you continued with the project was to write what you felt was missing. Is that correct?

Yeah. What I decided to do was to research the life of the historic black population from these Islands and write songs based on some of the stories of real people that resonated with me. So that’s what I did. All of the songs on The Sorrow Songs album are the stories that go with them. They are about real people, real places, and real events that really happened. I composed them deliberately in a folk style. My hope is that people will be able to connect with the songs on an emotional level, as well as on a musical level, and want to sing them. I really hope that people will want to do that and that we’ll begin to have – as part of the folk scene within this country – a broader variety of voices.

Where did you source the stories for the songs?

Wherever I could. I got some oral histories from people. I spent a massive amount of time online. There are lots of archives that you can search online; lots of museums have material online. I’ve had phone conversations with experts in black history – some were professional, others were not professional working historians but are passionate about history and collect information and have a lot of knowledge. I think, when you want to find that information, you can go down a rabbit hole. It’s really easy to follow leads. You can read an article that mentions a person who seems to know a particular aspect of black history, then you can find that person online, contact them and see if they will talk to you. Way follows way follows way.

How long have you been working on this?

I’ve been doing it for about a year.

And the songs themselves, did they come to you very quickly once you had the stories?

The first three songs absolutely tumbled out of me. After that, I had a period of a few months where I couldn’t write anything at all. I had really severe writer’s block, and I was really worried. I’ve got Arts Council funding and deadlines and dates by which I have to achieve certain things. I was genuinely worried. But I really applied myself and managed to get through the block. I found more stories and just tried new things. I tried different ways of writing that I hadn’t tried before. Eventually, I overwrote, actually, so I had to lose some songs. But that’s OK. I picked the ones that I wanted. What the songs have in common is that I wanted to make them singable so that people would want to sing them. So, even those which don’t have a refrain or chorus – and they are in the minority – I hope I have also made singable to someone who might want to sing story songs in a folk club or somewhere.

It’s such a profound project, Angeline. Have you finished recording it?

Recording for The Sorrow Songs starts in January. I aim to release it in October, 2022, at Cecil Sharp House.

Who are you recording it with?

I’m recording with Hamilton Gross on fiddle. He plays with a fantastic tradfolk band called Headnorth. Then there’s Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne on Anglo-concertina, and Clarke Camilleri on old-time acoustic guitar and banjo. All the musicians on the album will be English or British in non-straightforward ways, if I can put it that way. I wanted to put a whole band together of people like me, who could – in some way – identify with my experience of folk music.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your own experience. It’s something you’ve probably talked about a huge amount recently because I know you’ve done a couple of interviews with Fay Hield for her study on inclusivity and diversity on the folk scene, but what drew you to the English traditional folk scene?

This is something that is really difficult to get into words. What I will say is that my response to the songs and music, as well as the traditions and rituals, was really visceral. When I first started Morris dancing, it felt like I had come home. Honestly. It was like a really… deep… love, and a recognition, if I can say that. So, my feeling, and my love for folk song and folk music are really very deep and very visceral, and I can’t really explain them. I just love it. Can I ask what attracted you?

I’ve told this story many times, but it was to do with my father dying about eight years ago. We got on very well, but we never really talked much about our family history and family past. After he died, I remembered a conversation that I’d had with my grandmother many years before, in which she talked about meeting my grandfather when he had been a Morris dancer. My uncle, still living, told me that they had met and courted at Cecil Sharp House. I thought, “I need to find out more about this place.” I kept hearing about it. So, I went along and I heard people rehearsing traditional tunes, and I thought, “I know this music. This is not new to me.” I felt as though it already existed as a part of my memory.

Was that because you had heard your grandparents playing it as a child, or are you talking about some kind of collective memory?

Well, it’s interesting you ask that because on our website we recently published a piece by an artist called David Abbott about folk memory and a conversation that he’d had with Shirley Collins about the idea of collective folk memory – the notion that memory can exist as a sort of shared consciousness. I must’ve heard some of this music when I was a kid. I can’t pretend that that didn’t happen, but neither of my grandparents were really musicians. My uncle was, and my dad was, but my dad wasn’t interested in folk music, and my uncle lived a long way away. I don’t know how to explain it, but the music that I heard in Cecil Sharp House struck something within me that I wasn’t really able to put my finger on. You used the word ‘visceral’ earlier, and it had that kind of effect. It was sort of like, “I don’t know what just happened there, but there’s something going on.”

I totally relate to that. Something happened, and I don’t really know what it was. It just went straight to my heart and I knew that I loved it. It’s that simple. I’m really interested in the concept of folk memory and those Jungian concepts of collectivity – “the collective unconscious”. I think there is a truth in these concepts, certainly for me and my love of folk arts and folk culture. That’s part of it, though, isn’t it? Being part of a collective experience?

I think so. Do you remember going to your first folk club?

I think, actually, I went with my dad [laughs]. I took my dad to my first folk club! It was because I didn’t have any friends to go with.

None of us ever do.

[Laughs] Right! Nobody else was interested. You find those friends much later on, don’t you? [Laughs] Sometimes it can take a while. I think my dad was like, “Yeah, alright, I’ll come with you.” I think I felt more self-conscious about being a 17-year-old girl out with her dad than I did about being a black person in a room full of white people. But it’s true that I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been in a folk club with other people of colour. It’s a very rare experience.

That said, I do think folk clubs are changing now. It’s hard to say because the pandemic has had such a massive effect on how folk clubs are taking place, but I can see things changing and becoming much more diverse. But being the only one doing something can be hard, however friendly and welcoming people are. As you know, the folk community is famous for being very friendly and very welcoming – it does that really well. Nevertheless, it can be really difficult being the only one, and also feeling that there isn’t necessarily a clear way in for you, or a clear connection with the music. Do you see what I mean?

Of course.

The subject matter and the content of the songs at a traditional folk gathering are generally considered to be for, by, and about white people, isn’t it? And it’s the content of the songs that I felt, as a songwriter, I might be able to have some input into. As a black English person, as someone who loves and lives within these folk songs and the folk culture, I might actually be able to alter a few stitches in this tapestry and change it a little bit. I might be able to add some diversity to the voices that we hear within these songs.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful project.

Thank you.

Folk music is not a niche thing for a very highly specified small group of people… It’s actually wonderful, human music for everybody.

Angeline Morrison

In the last few weeks, you were announced as a new member of the EFDSS board. How did that come about, and how are you planning to change everything from within?

[Laughs] I was highly honoured to be invited. They got to know my work after I was awarded the bursary and I went to spend that week at Cecil Sharp House. So, that’s how they became aware of me. They seemed to really like my work and resonate with what I’m doing, situating black voices within the folk songs of these islands. It was as a result of that that I received an invitation to join the board.

What I hope to do is to represent people like me who love folk music. There is a misconception that we don’t exist. I’m living proof that we do. I would like for there to be a general feeling that folk music is not a niche thing for a very highly specified, small group of people, and that it’s actually wonderful, human music for everybody.

Obviously, you haven’t just appeared from nowhere, although many tradfolk people are only just starting to hear about you for the first time. You’ve actually got this incredible musical CV, haven’t you? You’ve been involved in all sorts of things. So, where do people go to start finding out about the musical history of Angeline Morrison?

My Bandcamp page would be a good place to start. Not everything is up there, but there’s quite a lot.

You’re a doctor, too, aren’t you, at Falmouth University?

[Sings the Lord Kitchener song] “I’m not a qualified physician” [laughs].

So, you’re not going to sort out the pandemic? You’re a doctor of all things music.

[Laughs] I’ve stepped away from my academic work for a bit to focus on making music rather than lecturing on it. I have been a lecturer on songwriting, and on the history of 20th century popular music, but I’m totally focused on my song-writing, singing, and music-making at the moment.

How lovely for you!

I’m loving it!

The Sorrow Songs is probably the album I’m most looking forward to in 2022.

Wow! No pressure, then!

Haha! Not much added pressure, anyway. Given the subject matter, I should imagine you’re feeling quite a lot of pressure already.

[Laughs] It is pretty big. And there’s no way that I could do everything I wanted to do on just one album.

So, there’s going to be more?

I might do some more. I’d love to. There are so many stories, I couldn’t include them all.

I’m assuming you’re writing songs that tell the stories of individuals’ lives and experiences. So, your songs are representing somebody, aren’t they? There must be pressure in doing that. I suppose you’re giving these people, presumably long-dead, life once more.

Yes, although one song on the album concerns someone who is still living, and this person’s story has been told by many, many other people before me. Obviously, there is still pressure, but I weighed it up. The story has been in the public domain for many years and dealt with by many people, so I felt like that gave me a bit of permission. But, what you say is true. If you’re telling somebody else’s story, a sense of responsibility comes with that, doesn’t it? Are you representing them or are you representing a fictionalised version of their life and experiences, which has been created by you? If you weren’t doing that, it would be a documentary. What I’m doing is creating works of fiction that have been inspired by real things. It’s important to remember that songs are works of fiction, isn’t it, because some people can get so proprietary about songs, can’t they?

I know you have plans to tour it, and I know you’re going to play at Sidmouth Folk Festival, aren’t you?

I’m super excited about Sidmouth. I’ll be playing the Cellar Full of Folkadelia, which I love the idea of. I do sing a lot of traditional songs, but as you’ve heard on my other recordings, most of what I do is psych-folk or folk-horror revival. So, I’m really happy to be in with the folkadelica!

Discover more about Angeline Morrison via her Bandcamp page. And if you’re interested in getting her along to your local folk club, she can be booked via Good Honest Music. The Sorrow Songs is due for release in October, 2022.