The emphatic answer to that question is yes. The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience is a triumph of research, determination, going against the odds, fabulous songwriting and musicianship, storytelling and, above all, humility. For Angeline Morrison is no diva. At no point do you feel that this project is about her. It’s about gathering the largely forgotten tales of a wholly ignored people and giving them a voice. Morrison’s unassuming delivery, coupled with unostentatious backing and subtle production, casts her as an observer – a narrator occasionally stepping forward from the wings, allowing the stories to do the work for themselves, as the most beloved folk songs always do. Let’s be clear about this before we go any further: The Sorrow Songs is a triumph.
We’ve written about the makings of this album a number of times here on Tradfolk, but for those in need of a recap… Angeline Morrison first started thinking about this project shortly after the murder of George Floyd. A research spell in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House revealed that very few traditional folk songs in the English canon made reference to the black experience in this country, and the few that did were derogatory. As a black woman who had spent much of her life attending folk clubs, Morrison decided that something needed to be done. She set about writing songs in the traditional English style that could offer a sense of inclusivity to people of colour. These were songs that dug into the true stories of real people in British history – songs of black experience sung by a black woman with enough experience of her own to reach into the past and offer them understanding, belated companionship and solace.
From the off, however, it’s clear that this isn’t an album that dwells purely in the deep and dark past. The Sorrow Songs is bookmarked by interludes – recitatives, if you will – produced to sound like field recordings that could’ve been recorded all too recently. “The standard of living is very low amongst the coloured people,” complains one anonymous voice on the first track, ‘Interlude – Some Terrible Habits’. “Perhaps if there was less of them and more of us, they might learn to live the way that we do.” It’s a stark opening, and it feels like a wake-up call from our currently divided country: listen to these songs of historic wrongdoings, but don’t make the mistake of thinking things are fine in 2022.
From there, we’re straight into the heartbreak of the first song and lead single, ‘Unknown African Boy (d.1830). This is the tragic lament of a mother who has lost her young son to English slavers, “with a cudgel blow and a pointed gun”, longing that the earth sees fit to keep him safe from further harm. Setting this tale of unfathomable English cruelty against a stately piece of English folk-inspired music takes us straight to the heart of the world that The Sorrow Songs explores. It’s an incredibly powerful technique, lulling folk listeners with tunes they can nod along to, used to seeing the world from their familiar folk club seat, and then presenting them with the horrors of an entirely different perspective, forcing them to face their own bloodstained past. And before you argue that traditional folk songs are littered with such tragedies, ask yourself how many deal with a toddler-aged child being dragged from his mother and then shackled in a ship’s hold until his limbs are scraped red-raw as he sails to a life of slavery.
It’s a technique she uses to disarm her listeners again and again. Most tradfolk fans will be familiar with ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ [Roud 31], but will not have been confronted, until now, with ‘The Flames They Do Grow High’. No, it’s not a straightforward rewrite, and that’s a good thing as to do so would’ve distracted from the power of the story. One of multiple highlights on The Sorrow Songs, this tells the tale of outsider writers, Jennifer and June Allison Gibbons, twins from Haverfordwest born to parents from the Windrush generation. Their mistreatment as children by the local community led them to invent their own communication methods and retreat from society, before being sentenced to Broadmoor for arson. Morrison is at her narrative best on this dark song (she delivers darkness in an unnervingly seductive way, pulling the listener in and intoning the lyrics as though they’re a message that only you should hear – ‘Hide Yourself’ is similarly effective), and the production is rivetingly cinematic. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne lays down the drones while Eliza Carthy’s fiddle (a delicious treat throughout the album) and Alex Neilson’s drums shriek and threaten off camera. Imagine someone telling the most intense horror story across a raging campfire as night hangs over your shoulders. It’s the aural equivalent of that.
Cinematic visions, recitatives, narrators – there’s clearly a stage show waiting to be commissioned here (someone get in touch with Hampstead Theatre) – and the scattering of uptempo songs do nothing to disabuse that notion. ‘The Beautiful Spotted Black Boy’, is a deceptively light music hall song about George Alexander Gratton (1808-1813), an African child with vitiligo who was paraded in cages at sideshows across the country until he died somewhere between the ages of four and eight. Again, Morrison employs that musical sleight of hand; unsuspecting listeners will be nodding along and smiling at the nostalgic steam-engine tune as the singer narrates Gratton’s pain:
Sir, I wish that you had not bought me
With your thousand guineas
Put me in cages and drag me about
The length and breadth of all the nation
Similarly begging for stage presentation is ‘Mad Haired Moll O’Bedlam’, as much a feminist song as it is an anti-racism composition. Again, the sinister production and rising jailbird chorus helps to paint an incredibly vivid picture, but at some point you realise that at the heart of what you’re hearing, stripped of its production and musicianship, is razor-sharp set of lyrics. It’s one thing, of course, to research a subject and conceive of an album of this nature, but it takes a whole different level of talent to render people’s life stories – in this case, that of a 19-year-old light-skinned black woman with beautiful, wild hair who, at some point in the 19th century, spoke ‘the wrong way’ to a policeman and died in incarceration – in words that do justice to their experience. Morrison achieves this again and again, and the effect is transfixing. We hear it throughout the album on songs like ‘The Hand of Fanny Johnson’, ‘Cinnamon Water’, and ‘Black John’. We come to know their stories and we feel their longing; something of their legacies now etched in music.
We hear it most powerfully on the closing track, ‘Slave no More’, a song that deserves to be sung by a massed crowd in solidarity. This is the story of Evaristo Muchovela (c.1830-1868), buried in Wendron Churchyard, Cornwall. Brought to England from Brazil as a 7-year-old, Muchovela appears to have been much-loved by the man who paid for him, Thomas Johns, eventually finding his freedom and coming to rest in the same grave. “When I first visited,” writes Morrison in the sleevenotes, “I knew I had to sing this inscription.”
Here lie the master and the slave
Side by side within one grave
Distinction is lost, and cast is o’er
The slave is slave no more
Intoned with subtle reverance by Martin Carthy in the role of the aged vicar presiding over Muchovela’s burial, these closing words prompt tears and mixed emotions. There’s a sense of relief and closure – a sense of there being some good in people, even though most of The Sorrow Songs would suggest otherwise – but also a reminder that, all too often, that closure only came as a premature death marked the end of a life destroyed by others on the basis of skin colour.
Given that 99% of traditional English folk songs are performed by middle-class white people, Morrison’s album and, indeed, her arrival on the traditional folk scene, is incredibly important. As one of very few black folk performers on the English trad circuit today, these are her stories to tell. Sure, equality and inclusivity need to be the guiding lights – the dignified tones of Martin Carthy as the local priest closing the coffin lid is a powerful and significant gesture, given Morrison’s reverence of the legendary singer – and the songs will be sung again and again by humans regardless of colour, but it’s important that these tales of hardship have not been told from the perspective of a white folk singer, as so many folk songs are. Angeline Morrison paves the way and offers an authentic, brave folk voice of black British experience. In doing so, she presents us with a collection of songs that feel incredibly overdue. Long may they be sung out and loud.
The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience is out on Topic Records on October 7th, coinciding with Black History Month. It can be pre-ordered from this link. The album was produced by Eliza Carthy and features the musical talents of Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Hamilton Gross, Clarke Camilleri, Rosie Crow, Mary Woodvine and Alex Neilson.