Released to mark Black History Month, produced by Eliza Carthy, who also arranged the strings and plays violin, with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne on anglo concertina and melodeon, the Cornwall-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist calls The Sorrow Songs ‘re-storying’. Which is to say it seeks to reclaim the stories of people in the UK of the African diaspora whose histories are little known and almost never feature in the country’s traditional folk music.
With funding from the Arts Council National Lottery, Morrison spent a year researching what would become the narratives here that seek to honour the Black ancestors who lived in these islands, written in traditional folk fashion with consciously singable choruses, and interspersed with spoken interludes, written by Morrison but, drawing of archive interviews, channelling the sort of ignorance and prejudices of middle class whites who found themselves with immigrant neighbours.
The album was inspired by The Souls Of Black Folk, a work of African American literature written in 1903 by W.E.B du Bois which she reread in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. In the book, Chapter 15, is titled ‘Of The Sorrow Songs’ and is about the folk songs of enslaved Africans in America and their descendants. Research into the British tradition revealed no such ‘spirituals’, rather that if any folk songs did reference people of colour, it was usually in a negative light, thus the sources for her songs are the result of oral histories or the lives of real figures. She herself a Jamaican descendant of enslaved Africans, she saw the project as a way of giving voice to a people who had been rendered voiceless.
Opening with a perfect encapsulation of the racist attitudes in the 50s and 60s, (“The coloured people have got some terrible habits, they use the back garden for toilets” … “Perhaps if there was less of them and more of us they might learn to live the way that we do”), it proceeds into ‘Unknown African Boy’ as the sound of gulls and waves introduces the tragic story she’d read in a local newspaper of the time about the wreck of a slave ship off the Isles of Scilly, listing that among the items washed up on shore were palm oil, elephant tusks, boxes of gold dust and the body of an eight-year-old boy. He was buried in St. Martin’s churchyard and the song, with its autoharp and mournful fiddle and crooned as a lullaby, the tune evocative of ‘Shenandoah’, is written from the perspective of his grieving mother back home.
The tempo picks up slightly for the fingerpicked ‘Black John’, sung in the voice of John Ystumlynn, relating his story of being abducted as a child in the 18th century and becoming a servant to the Welsh landowning Wynne family on whose estate he worked, going on to marry a local girl, have children and become a celebrated gardener under the name of Black John, recently honoured by having a rose named after him, the final celebratory refrain gathering pace with handclaps, the violin solo reflecting his love of the instrument.
Following a second interlude about how coloured should live in a district of their own, thus avoiding the local children, ‘The Beautiful Spotted Black Boy’ begins with a fairground barker and, taken at a jaunty accordion-led music hall sway tells of George Alexander Gratton, an African child who, afflicted with vitiligo, causing white patches on his skin, was exhibited as a freak show attraction by his owner, John Richardson, the song constructed as an exchange of viewpoints between the two, George complaining “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”, while Richardson was accounted as being genuinely fond of the boy (“I could not care for this infant so pure/if he were my own, my own dear child”), the pair sharing adjacent headstones in the graveyard.
‘Mad-haired Moll O’Bedlam’, inspired by the old Western belief that having ‘wild’ hair was a sign of madness and an old photograph of a light-skinned Black 19-year-old with such hair who had been committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane for “speaking the wrong way” to a policeman, prompting this first person narrative (though the woman here is 22) arranged as a drone-backed lament, borrowing the ‘bonny’ line from the traditional Boys of Bedlam for its final verse with its spiritual backing chorus.
An interlude complaint about the smell of the cooking precedes the album’s jauntiest chorus and its most unusual story, that of ‘The Hand Of Fanny Johnson’. Baptised in 1778, Fanny Elizabeth Johnson was the servant to the Satterthwaite family, a descent of whom, in 2006, decided to inter her mummified hand, that had been kept framed over the fireplace for some 200 years, in the grounds of Lancaster Priory. Playfully, Morrison tells the story from the hand’s perspective, keeping watch over the family and wishing she could still care for them. On a more musically subdued note, while the project primarily recounts otherwise unknown stories, the pastoral tinkling sway of ‘Cinnamon Water’ is about Mary Jane Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse who served in the Crimean War as a contemporary of Florence Nightingale, practising folk medicine on the wounded, some of her remedies (cinnamon water has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties) informing the song’s chorus.
Sung unaccompanied with multi-tracked voices, the brief ‘Hide Yourself’ relates to the 1919 Liverpool Race Riots in response to employers giving jobs to people of colour who they could pay less, leading to the murder of at least one young man from Bermuda and where those of colour had to barricade themselves into their homes.
Switching centuries, featuring violin, autoharp and strummed guitar, nodding to the canon of English folk songs, ‘Cruel Mother Country’ is set against the American War of Independence where black slaves were encouraged to escape and enlist in the British Army and serve the country’s ‘Black Queen’ Charlotte with the promise of freedom back in England. Rather inevitably, such promises proved false with many of those who took up the offer ending up injured and homeless on the streets of London.
She returns to Wales for ‘The Flames They Do Grow High’ which, with a spooked , rumbling arrangement featuring Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and muted, fractured percussion, tells the story of June Allison Gibbons and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters, born in 1963 as part of the Windrush Generation, who, bullied at school developed their own language and began writing, publishing several novels, but, having set a fire in an abandoned building, were sentenced in 1981 to indefinite detention in Broadmoor’s high-security psychiatric hospital.
A final ‘coloureds needs not apply’ interlude leads into the non-specific ‘Go Home’, a sparse, minimal song which, set to nervy piano notes and a dark shanty refrain, encapsulates a phrase with which immigrants and refugees over the centuries have been all too familiar, the chorus noting “this is the only home I’ve ever known”.
Unaccompanied other than for brief melodeon flourish, it ends with the rousingly anthemic, hymnal-sounding six and a half minutes ‘Slave No More’ which, featuring both solo and choral vocals, draws on the story of Evaristo Muchovela, a Mozambique child sold into slavery and purchased in Brazil as a seven-year-old by Cornish miner Thomas Johns. There’s is a story of friendship and ultimately liberation, the pair buried in the same grave in Wendron Churchyard, the song’s chorus taken from the headstone’s 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”
and spoken by Martin Carthy in the role of the vicar at the burial.
Unequivocally one of the finest and most important folk albums of this, or indeed any, year, beautifully crafted, performed and packaged, The Sorrow Songs turns a long overdue spotlight on the country’s forgotten stories and forgotten people, reclaiming their part in the UK folk tradition and history and touching the deepest fibre of those who hear them.
Artist’s website: www.angelinemorrisonmusic.com