The Brown Girl – Angeline Morrison

Earlier this week, Angeline Morrison released a video for her version of 'The Brown Girl' [Roud 180], so we made a beeline to her door to find out a little more about her relationship with it.

“‘The Brown Girl’ [Roud 180] is a magical song for me,” explains Angeline Morrison from her home in Cornwall. “It had a deep effect on my relationship with folk music. It’s both song and talisman, opening up worlds of possibility that I used to believe only existed in my imagination. ‘The Brown Girl’ allowed me to dream people of colour into the traditional songs of these islands, long before I had learned anything about our actual historic presence here.”

‘The Brown Girl’ allowed me to dream people of colour into the traditional songs of these islands, long before I had learned anything about our actual historic presence here

Angeline Morrison

‘The Brown Girl’ shows up in 333 results at the VWML, where it is known under various names, including, ‘Sally and Billy’, ‘The Seaman of Dover’, ‘Fine Sally’, ‘A Royal Fair Damsel’ and many more. It is also recognised as Child 295. While there are a handful of examples from the oral tradition, it seems to have spent much of its life as a broadsheet ballad. It turns up in around 20 locations in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, before leaping to the United States, where it runs rife in vast numbers, very quickly. Interestingly, Will Setter sang it to Sabine Baring-Gould in Devon in 1890, and a version (under the name of ‘Sally’) was collected from Miss Lina Cox in Scalesville, Indiana, only two years later.

Morrison continues: “I first heard Martin Carthy singing it on the Skin and Bone album with Dave Swarbrick. This version is set to a traditional tune called ‘Sweet Kitty’, and the heroine’s fiery nature is really celebrated. It’s such a powerful recording. I also love Frankie Armstrong’s version, where all the brown girl’s rage is brilliantly embodied in the vocal. My version is more contemplative. My brown girl is turning over the events in her mind, and has decided she really doesn’t care for this person at all, so she is deliberately stretching out the journey to her false lover’s death bed. She’s wasting as much time as she can, dancing dreamily in the lanes, throwing stones, looking at the clouds… That’s what I wanted to evoke in the video – a long, long summer’s day, shimmery and dreamlike, the sort of day where you can while away hours, gently warmed by the sun, as your false lover lies moaning and thrashing on his bed with an apparently broken heart.”

Angeline Morrison’s new video was filmed and directed by Nick Duffy, who also played guitar and co-arranged the singer’s version of the song. The recording is taken from Morrison’s album, The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs, which came out on May 1st, 2022. Note that this song is not part of her upcoming album, The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience.

Angeline Morrison on tour

Keep up with Angeline Morrison on tour by searching the Tradfolk Events Calendar.