The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Angeline Morrison
The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience Daniel Hignell , October 20th, 2022 09:26

The Cornish singer reintegrates tales of Black British experience into the English folk tradition

It’s perhaps a little awkward to describe any given musical project as ‘important’ – an adjective that is used far too frequently and often serves little purpose other than to sate the ego of the artist involved. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Angeline Morrison’s The Sorrow Songs is not an important record, in a quite literal sense. Striving to integrate the unsung tales of the African diaspora into the British folk tradition, Morrison not only succeeds in her task of ‘re-storytelling’ these overlooked narratives but does so through the prism of a rather wonderful – and rather traditional – folk album.

Whilst the tracks are interspersed by rather caustic bursts of casual racism – snippets of spoken text that depict the sort of hostile environments many of the albums protagonists are embedded within - the songs themselves are a more subtle affair. The lyrics invoke a broad mix of scenes and emotions, their stories underscored by the somewhat bleak invocations of family and nationhood for which the form is known. Indeed, much of the album’s strength comes from the way in which Morrison merges her chosen subject with the dictates of folk lyrical expression.

Lead single ‘Unknown African Boy’ is a case in point. Passages such as “if the sea be your bed, and the waves be your pillow, may the sun in the sky keep you from all harm. The earth is your mother now, dear baby; she will hold you safe in her soft brown arms,” draw upon the specific tenor of British folk music, whilst neatly reframing the characters within to incorporate the Black experience. A reliance on not only pretty, plucky banjos and guitars, but equally long, drawn-out phrases of autoharp and violin, serve to amplify the sorrow to which the title alludes. ‘Mad Haired Moll ‘O Bedlam’, a story about the horrors of Bedlam prison replete with string drones and haunting vocal harmonies, is perhaps the standout here, a thoroughly depressing account of London’s cruel history of incarceration. In contrast, ‘The Hand of Fanny Johnson’ is a rather jaunty tale of a burial, a song that may even be considered merry – so long as you don’t listen to the words.

Working with an impressive line-up of accompanying musicians – Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Clarke Camilleri, Hamilton Gross, Rosie Crow, Alex Neilson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy – Morrison has constructed a moving account of a subject that has sadly been all too absent to this point. Folk music, somewhat by definition, celebrates a diverse palette of human creativity – a fact only tempered by the wider scenes’ typical whiteness. Through her dedication to uncovering and retelling stories that by all rights should be embedded in the tradition already – and doing so through the composition of some truly excellent music – Morrison has forged an evocative and, yes, important addition to the British folk repertoire.