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

Grace Will Lead Me HomeIs this the year for ‘Amazing Grace’, as it appears once more, and this time as the focus, barely a week after its inclusion on the latest from Blue Rose Code? Here, rather than a mid-album surprise, this time it is the whole history and background of the song that gets attention, as well as John Newton, who wrote the words, revealing and recounting just quite how much more to the story there is to it, beyond the well-worn warhorse we thought ourselves familiar with. 

All credit, then, to Jon Bickley, for pulling all this together, he being a poet, folksinger, radio and podcast producer from Bucks, instigator of the Invisible Folk Club, a virtual folk club, wherein he often explores, often in cahoots with academics and historians, the backgrounds of and to our folk traditions. Here his cahoots include no less than Angeline Morrison and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, each fast staking claims in the annals of a black Britain hitherto undiscovered or forgotten, together for Morrison’s ‘The Sorrow Songs’ and Braithwaite-Kilcoyne as part of Reg Meuross’ ‘Stolen From God’ project. With slavery a strong part of each, it comes as some shock to appreciate so too was Newton intrinsically involved in this pernicious trade. 

Newton was a sea captain, ultimately of slavers, continuing so to do, despite embracing Christianity. In time, he came to lend his voice to the abolitionist cause, not least as he later became a preacher and curate. This project, which commemorates the 250th anniversary of the writing of the hymn, has new songs to explore the dichotomy between the song and the sometime trade of its writer. It is heady stuff. 

‘Dear Polly’, a song written by Morrison, starts proceedings with some abrasively strummed guitar and Bickley’s unreconstructed rasp of a voice. Polly was Newton’s wife, to whom he wrote most days, the song swapping verses between his voice and the sweeter tones of Morrison. A simple song, it is chillingly effective in setting the page. The concertina and vocal of Braithwaite-Kilcoyne takes up for ‘Press Gang Song’, his own, a plangent ditty on recruiting both crew and cargo. Morrison’s title track exudes all the colour of an acapella street-corner gospel choir and is an absolute delight.

‘Turn Around Newton’ sticks with Morrison and is a profoundly poppy song that wouldn’t shame Ray Davies. As the handclap percussion enters, you can’t help but be buoyed along. It is her autoharp that introduces the only non-original here, ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’. bar ‘Grace’ itself. Whereas the delivery makes it sound ages old, this is, in fact, a song from 2016. Inspired by the Charlston church shootings of 2015, and it relates how Barack Obama, the then president in question, broke into the song, whilst delivering his eulogy to one of the fallen. Context aside, around the lasting power of Newton’s words, it feels a little slow and out of place. 

Cohen then plays his own instrumental, ‘Fantasia On A West Indian Burial Theme’, which, by contrast, is perfect, awash with the fumes of old time religion, his squeezebox coming on like a wheezy old pipe organ. Three Bickley songs up next, the first being ‘I’m Going To Hear John Newton Preach’, which is like the Levellers slowed down, to the extent there is expectation of a super-fast breakdown. The fact it doesn’t come adds to the overall effect and expectation, recounting Newton’s switch from slaves to souls. ‘The Choir Still Sings Amazing Grace ‘is a swirly early Byrdsy proto-jangle, if with a near sprechgesang vocal. The rhythm section of Bill Nimmo, bass, and Dave Bickley, drums, are worth a mention. ‘Sorry’ echoes the Who, or vocally, any of the punk bands that borrowed that same template. It imagines Newton in full apology mode.

Everyday’s a school day department, with news, to me, at least, that the tune we and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards know, for ‘Amazing Grace’, isn’t the original. Indeed, at the time, many hymns were little more than poems, that could be, and often were, sung to any tune to hand. Not until 1847 was the tune ‘New Britain’ applied, the one we all now associate. So, up first, we first get a taste of it sung to ‘Jesus, Thy Word Is My Delight’, concertina and wobbly group chorale style. It is quite charming. The traditional ‘Eyes On The Prize’, a traditional folk song popular in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, bridges the two versions, sounding a bizarre cross between a cowboy campfire song and a sea shanty. I’d like to hear Billy Bragg try this one. 

The closer, had that not become obvious, is a five minute version of the “new” version. With concertina and guitar, Bickley’s voice now has the requisite timbre to pass muster, in the vein of a Pete Seeger, with, when the others chime in, the flavour of an Aldermaston CND march. It, too, isn’t without charm, but this tail end of the record is by no means as solid as the opening salvo of songs, perhaps let down by the inevitability of the ending. But it is still well worth a spin, and bears repetition, rather than one listen and filing under worthy. It’s better than that. 

Seuras Og 

Project website:

‘Amazing Grace’ – official video: