The story of The Sorrow Songs
The idea for The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience first came to Angeline Morrison in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As she explained to us in an interview in December 2021, “I started reading 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?'”
Over the following 18 months, that initial inkling went on a journey. Awarded an Alan James Creative Bursary, Morrison spent time at Cecil Sharp House investigating songs of black British experience in the folk song archives. “I only found one or two songs where black people were not the butt of the joke,” she explained, “or represented in some really negative, stereotypical way.” Realising that the songs she had hoped to find didn’t exist, she began looking at historical evidence of black lives in British history, eventually setting them to music that sounds as though it comes from the traditional folk canon.
As she prepares to release the album on Topic Records (more about which below), she tells us, “There’s a very widely held misconception that people of the African diaspora are absent in UK history. I often hear, “but there weren’t any Black people here before 1947”, and this is simply not true. There’s a very long historic Black presence, dating back at least 2,000 years. It’s evidenced and people have published work about it, but it remains widely undiscussed. A minority presence is still very much a presence. And I really wanted to tell the stories of these Black ancestors in song, particularly in the folk songs of the lands they inhabited, because folk songs are where you can find these hidden histories, these unofficial accounts, or the stories of those who have been denied a voice.”
A minority presence is still very much a presenceAngeline Morrison
She began singing the songs wherever she could, and, during lockdown, she performed a handful of them to a small but sufficiently awed audience on Eliza Carthy’s Folk Room Clubhouse app. Carthy promptly offered to help in any way she could – an offer that eventually saw the folk legend producing the album.
Working with Eliza Carthy and the Sorrow Songs band
“It’s was such an amazing thing to have Eliza Carthy as producer of this album,” Morrison recalls. “She is an absolute musical genius and was really supportive of the subject matter and the songs from the very start. We had to work remotely because of COVID, but we had daily video calls with Eliza which became a real highlight for all of us in the studio. Eliza’s string arrangements on this album are incredible, too – very beautiful and moving. I’m so excited about them.
“I wanted to put together as multicultural a band as possible, in the spirit of the album and the people whose stories it tells. We recorded at Cube Studios in Cornwall where we had Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Hamilton Gross, Clarke Camilleri, Rosie Crow, Mary Woodvine. Virtually, we had Alex Neilson, who was all set to make the epic journey to Cornwall from Scotland, but he was struck down with COVID at the last minute. And finally, also remotely, an amazing guest appearance by Martin Carthy on the closing track, ‘Slave No More’.
Bringing the story full circle, Morrison has today announced that The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience will be released on Topic Records – the world’s oldest independent record label, and home to much of Britain’s traditional folk music – on October 7th, the first week in Black History Month.
I’ve always had this secret little dream that one day I’d release an album on Topic Records – so, for me, this is quite literally a dream come trueAngeline Morrison
“Releasing this album on Topic Records means so much to me, it’s hard to put it into words,” Angeline tells Tradfolk. “It’s immense. First, it’s such an iconic label, and the oldest independent record company in the world. It has also released much of the music that has had the deepest effect on me, as a musician and personally, too. For The Sorrow Songs album, in particular, I needed to make sure I found a label that understood the importance of Black History being storied in folk song. That was absolutely vital for me, and Topic Records really appreciated and got the subject matter. I couldn’t have gone ahead with a label that wasn’t on board with that. I’ve always had this secret little dream that one day I’d release an album on Topic Records – so, for me, this is quite literally a dream come true.”
“I’d actually had the idea for the album cover in my head for ages,” Morrison explains. “I wanted it to harmonise visually with those classic Topic releases of the late 60s and 70s, which were so influential musically. The original idea was to populate an image of the English countryside with historic photographs of Black people and other people of colour. This was to make a visual point about our historic relationship to, and with, the land here. But I wasn’t able to get image licensing for all the images I wanted. This striking image of the little May Queen is courtesy of the BFI. It’s from a 1946 short film called Springtime in an English Village, commissioned to screen in the colonies and attract workers to the UK. The film shows the choosing and crowning of a May Queen in a primary school in Northamptonshire. Two Black children appear in these shots, this child and her non-identical twin sister. They were born in London originally and evacuated to this village. Apparently the girls were popular in school, and this girl was chosen by her classmates as May Queen quite independently of the film.”
The first single
The album is preceded by a single, ‘Unknown African Boy (d. 1830)’, also released to streaming platforms today (and heading straight to the top of Tradfolk’s Latest Folkish Favourites playlist).
‘Unknown African Boy (d. 1830)’ is a powerful hint of what’s to come. An early song on the album’s tracklist, it 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 Sings explores. It’s a spellbinding, uncomfortable listen that refuses to sit quietly as background music, and it gives voice – as the greatest folk songs so often do – to those whose voices and stories were repressed.
“This was the very first of The Sorrow Songs,” explains Morrison. “It came to me as I paced up and down my local beach, wrestling with the tragic story I had just read. Many slave ships passed by the Isles of Scilly during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1526 – 1867 approx). The tricky waters in this area meant that many ships were wrecked. In the case of this ship, the exhausted captain mistook the Day Mark of St Martin’s for the lighthouse of St Agnes, and the ship went down. A local newspaper article of the time lists some of the items washed up on shore. The list includes palm oil, several hundred elephant tusks, a box of silver dollars, two boxes of gold dust, and the body of an unknown ‘West African boy’, estimated to have been around 8 years old. The boy is buried in St Martin’s churchyard, Isles of Scilly. This song is from the perspective of his mother.”
‘Slave no More’
The big closing track is probably too long to be a pre-release single, but it’s the album’s mighty singalong and festival goers will already have it living rent-free in their frontal lobes. It’s a catchy one.
Morrison explains, “This song tells the story of Evaristo Muchovela, enslaved as a very small child in Mozambique, trafficked to Brazil, and bought as a traumatised 7-year-old by Thomas Johns, a Cornish miner. Johns had worked and saved hard and wanted to start a new life in Brazil. We don’t know many details about the two men, and we don’t know why Johns bought Muchovela – Cornish playwright Patrick Carroll, who wrote a radio play about them called Evaristo’s Epitaph, suggests that Johns bought the child to save him from an aggressive-looking bidder. Either way, Johns seems to have treated Evaristo well. The amazing thing is that they are buried in Wendron Cemetary in Cornwall in the very same grave. When I went to visit the grave and pay homage, and read the inscription on the headstone, that was the moment I knew for certain that it had to be a song. Almost instantly I sang the inscription. I conceived this song as a big group sing, with many voices soaring and harmonising, and reminiscent of the hymns in the Sankey and Moody hymn book, popular in Cornwall in the Methodist Chapels, and also at informal singings. I wanted to honour Cornish traditions of group singing in this song.
“When I first read the inscription on the headstone I could hear the voice of Martin Carthy intoning it, and playing the part of the Vicar at Evaristo’s funeral. So when he actually agreed to do this, I was so happy I could have taken flight! When he sent the file and we dropped it into the song, there was absolute silence in the studio. I had shivers all over me, and tears in my eyes.”
The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of British Black Experience is released on Topic Records on October 7th. Pre-order by clicking here. Look out for the Tradfolk review of the album in coming weeks.
Here lie the master and the slaveInscription on the gravestone of Evaristo Muchovela
Side by side within one grave
Distinctions lost and caste is o’er
The slave is now a slave no more
Angeline Morrison tour dates
Angeline Morrison and the Sorrow Songs Band will be playing the following dates:
- October 16th, Bristol, The Wardrobe Theatre – tickets here
- October 18th, Cardiff, Seligman Theatre – tickets here
- October 20th, London, Cecil Sharp House – tickets here
- October 22nd, Cornwall, Redruth Drapery – tickets here
Angeline Morrison will be playing the following solo shows this summer:
- August 26th, Cornwall Folk Festival – tickets here
- October 15th, Manchester Folk Festival – tickets here
The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience – tracklisting
- Interlude – Some Terrible Habits
- Unknown African Boy (d. 1830)
- Black John
- Interlude – These Little Ones
- The Beautiful Spotted Black Boy
- Mad-Haired Moll O’Bedlam
- Interlude – Nobody Round Here Likes It
- The Hand of Fanny Johnson
- Cinnamon Water
- Hide Yourself
- Cruel Mother Country
- Interlude – In the Village
- The Flames they do Grow High
- Interlude – Need Not Apply
- Go Home
- Slave No More (feat. Martin Carthy)