ANGELINE, COHEN AND JON – Grace Will Lead Me Home (Invisible Folk)

Grace Will Lead Me HomeThat’ll be Morrison, Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and Bickley, then, partnering up for a concept album its themes bookended by the 250th anniversary of ‘Amazing Grace’ in 2023 and 2025’s 300th birthday of its writer, John Newton. One of the world’s best known hymns, recordings of which range from Judy Collins, The Byrds and Aretha Franklin to the 1972 UK No 1 by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the history behind it is somewhat less known, the famous tune (‘New Britain’) only being adopted 70 years after Newton penned the words while the closing “Bright shining as the sun” verse is actually lifted from an African-American spiritual, ‘Jerusalem, My Happy Home’. Which leads to another intriguing historical note in that, while Newton was an English evangelical Anglican cleric and abolitionist, he had previously captained slave ships and actively invested in the slave trade. And yet even descendants of such slaves have embraced the hymn.

Part of a wider Invisible Folk project in tandem with the Arts Council and the Cowper and Newton Museum involving a series of podcast interviews, Bickley invited Cohen and Angeline, both of whom had previously explored slavery issues, notably he via Reg Meuross’s Stolen From God and she her own Sorrow Songs, to join and write new songs exploring the dilemmas and controversies surrounding the hymn. As such, one from each, provide the first two tracks, opening with Morrison’s traditional folk sounding ‘Dear Polly’ based around letters Newton wrote to his wife, and sung by herself and Bickley in their respective voices. That’s followed by Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s concertina-wheezing ‘Press Gang Song’, an equally traditional, broadside-like song in which the narrator questions how easily the brutality of the slave trade was accepted by those involved (“Can you sail to distant lands to a far foreign shore/Plunder realms without mercy claim your spoils of war/Stealing souls for you chattles, their lives to decayed?… Can you abuse your fellow man lead him shackled in chains and can you brutalise and violate, disregard their cries of pain?/can you cast them overboard to a watery grave/for when that you do you shall master your trade”).

Two more Morrison numbers follow, gospel and doo wop coming together on the title track (“When you feel like a ship that is rudderless/When you feel like a child that is motherless/When you feel overwhelmed by the otherness/It’s Grace that will lead me home”), the first to mention the hymn by name and performed with a children’s choir in the Cowper and Newton Museum courtyard, giving way to the clattery ‘Turn Round Newton’, a number about his relationship with fellow Anglican hymnist William Cowper who, in the song at least, could do without him turning up whenever he feels like it (“Oh ring a ding ding John’s at my bell imagining I’m in mortal hell/Today my mortal dread is all in dear John’s head and all I want is peace to sup my tea and bite me bread but no such thing…if I wanted to see you I’d open the door”).

Accompanying herself on autoharp, Morrison covers ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’, a song written by Manchester folkie Zoe Mulford about how, while delivering the eulogy for Clementa C. Pinckney, one of the victims of the 2015 Charleston church, Barack Obama broke down in years and gave an impromptu performance of the hymn.

The second Braithwaite-Kilcoyne number is the concertina instrumental ‘Fantasia On A West Indian Burial Theme’, incorporating a melody common to slave funerals that followed by three from Bickley, the first, Bill Nimmo on brooding bass and guitar, being the semi-spoken stark (“pack the Africans with the livestock and hope enough of them survive/if they’re crying down below/at least you know they’re alive”) ‘I’m Going To Hear John Newton Preach’ which details his journey from slave trader to preacher and abolitionist (“I see bodies in the water/see the waves close over his face/hear him crying out for mercy/hear him crying out for grace/see God’s hand scoop him up/see the big man washed up on the beach/now God’s hand is his pulpit/I’m going to hear John Newton preach”).

Set to a military marching beat ‘The Choir Still Sings Amazing Grace’ fuses different historical panoramas (“Newton is still sailing with a ship full of slaves/while beneath the London streets/Stephen Lawrence is in his grave”) to talk about how things haven’t really changed (“The Devil plays the king/we want God to play the ace”), just that slavery now wears a different face (“When you get arrested for being in the wrong place/and you are convicted by virtue of your race”), but “the choir still sings Amazing Grace”. And yet that hope keeps the candle burning – “I’m lost and I’m lonely where the homeless people roam/but I live in hope that Grace will lead me home/I look at the world and tears run down my face/but there’s a song in my heart called Amazing Grace”.

Another rhythmically punchy number with a Bo Diddley beat, the punky ‘Sorry’ is a call for countries to own their past so that reparation and healing can begin (“I am sorry for the slave trade/I am sorry for the violence/I am sorry for the bloodshed/I am sorry for the silence/I am sorry for the prisons/the padlocks and the gates/I am sorry for the gangs/I am sorry for the hate… A white man’s tears mean nothing/only justice will set us free until our leaders stop hiding it is up to you and me”). Maybe someone should play it during the next Rwanda debate.

Accompanied by concertina and recorded live, the first rendition of the actual hymn is set to its original tune of ‘Jesu Thy Word Is My Delight’, followed by Bickley’s marching folk punk arrangement of guitar, handclaps and concertina for ‘Eyes On The Prize’, a number based on the traditional ‘Gospel Plow’ that figured heavily in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, before finally ending with all three joining in for a down by the riverside salvation tent styled five-minute rendition of the hymn set to its familiar tune. How sweet the sound indeed.

Mike Davies          

Project website:

‘Dear Polly’ – official video: