Angeline Morrison: The Sorrow Songs Music Interview

Angeline Morrison is a maker of Tender, soulful music

“Oh earth, cradle my son for me,” gently intones Angeline Morrison on Unknown African Boy (d. 1830). We’re left shaken after hearing it for the first time at Folk Radio’s jointly curated A Cellarful of Folkadelia performance at Sidmouth Folk Festival. Despite its lilting refrain, it’s an urgent and unflinching account which perfectly encapsulates the deeply sensitive nature of The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience. Released via Topic Records on 7th October, the much-needed project looks to address the omissions or derogatory inclusions of Morrison’s Black British ancestors in traditional music by honouring them with a new ‘re-storying’ of their lives.

While the Cornwall-based songwriter’s most recent record, The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs, drew from a repertoire of grave, quietly charged traditional standards, The Sorrow Songs will feature entirely new compositions and a talented, multicultural ensemble. Before her Cellarful set, we found a shaded spot outside Kennaway House to further discuss her intentions with the album, as well as last month’s highly eventful Cambridge Folk Festival appearance, Shirley Collins & the Carthy’s influence, Collective Unconscious and much more.

How did it feel to receive the Christian Raphael prize?

I could not have been more surprised and delighted. Christian Raphael is an amazing young man. He has complex learning disabilities, he’s a blogger, and he’s a true advocate of music. What’s more, he funds this incredible prize for an artist each year, where Christian and his family provide financial support and industry mentoring for twelve months; PR publicity, really those incredibly valuable things that most artists (including me) just haven’t the money to pay for. It’s going to make such a difference to my music-making. I got to meet Christian as well, and that meant a lot to me to be able to thank him personally.

I only found out I’d been nominated the day before my set, and it happened in a memorable way: I’d just played my set; I cashed in my dinner ticket, and there I was eating my chips when I got this phone call from Amie Hoyland to tell me I had won. As she was telling me about the news, behind me, a group of men on their phones were watching the football, and the Lionesses must have scored a goal because there was this loud hubbub of voices screaming and cheering.

It must be all the help in the world and such a vote of confidence as well.

That’s almost more important than the practical help, in a way. To have my work singled out like that when all the other nominees were so amazing. I just can’t tell you how glad I am.

Is this your first time at Sidmouth?

It’s not my first time, but it is my first time playing here. So, it’s an extra special one for me.

I know you’re also a Morris dancer, have you had a chance to catch any of that yet?

I’m kind of cursed with Morris dancers at festivals, every time I attend one, I see them walking away, all finished. It’s quite depressing, but there should be plenty of chances before I head home.

So, if you had to sum up Sorrow Songs for our readers, where would you start?

It’s always good when you’ve got a sprawling idea to try and do it in a sentence because you can’t guarantee people aren’t going to glaze over. The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience is the full title, and it’s a re-storying of Black History into folk music. Of course, I can’t write traditional songs because I’m writing original compositions in 2022, but the philosophy behind this is there’s so much misinformation about Black History in the UK, all you need to do is have a conversation with someone or mention it and people until this day still say, “Oh no, there weren’t any black people in these islands until the mid-twentieth century.” The amount of people who believe that is surprising, but then again, you can understand as I believed it myself. No one is taught the true history.

The true history is that there has been a Black presence, people of the African diaspora, for at least 2000 years. There were Black people with the Romans, soldiers, for example, and there was also a Black Roman emperor. I’ve done research, but it is ongoing, and I want to find more songs with Black characters, so if anyone reading this has any songs that they can recommend, I always want to hear them. The ones that I’ve managed to find the Black characters tend to be there for a negative reason, for comedy or to be scapegoated in some way. But what I couldn’t find were stories of real-life Black humans or imaginary Black humans.

So, I wanted to research the lives of these people and retell them as folk songs because it seems to me traditional folk music is where the unofficial histories get told. Folk songs are an important container for unofficial histories, for things that get hidden, are made secret or are swept under the carpet. I would love it if stories of historic UK Black ancestors get retold through song. Because as far as I can see telling stories through song is common to all cultures and the people whose stories are made into songs are those we remember.

I know you mentioned sourcing these songs both orally and through archives. Will it span from historic accounts up until the more contemporary then?

Yes, I’ve got two stories from the twentieth century, but the rest were further back. That was part of the intention with the album, really, because I do want to challenge that common misconception that historically, there wasn’t this Black presence. There are loads of twentieth-century stories that are excellent, but I wanted to explore this instead.

I don’t want to push you too much as the songs are incoming but were there any accounts where you found that it was clear that they needed to be made into songs?

In the process of the research, sometimes stories just jumped out at me, and I thought that’s got to be a song. They didn’t always become songs very easily. The way I filtered them, I had to feel as though when I’m performing this story, I am able to embody it with emotional truth in some way. Not that I’ve gone through that experience, but I had to identify with some of the energies of that experience. I think that’s the way anybody can hook in through the universal language of feeling and of song as well. The human voice just transcends differences, doesn’t it?

In terms of the actual stories, I can tell you one as I’ll be singing it later today. That’s the story of Evaristo Muchovela, who died in 1868 and is buried at Wendron Cemetery in Cornwall, which is not very far from where I live. I went to pay homage to him, and the first amazing thing about him is he’s buried in the same grave as the man who owned him, a Cornish miner named Thomas Johns. He saved enough money to travel to Brazil and purchase a seven-year-old boy who was trafficked from Mozambique to be sold. Nobody knows why he bought him, but he appears to have been very kind to him. Neither man had children nor married, they had each other, so it seems they became family to one another. When I read the inscription on the grave, that’s when I knew it had to be a song: “Here lie the master and the slave / Side by side within one grave / Distinctions lost and caste is o’er / The slave is now a slave no more.”

It gives you the shivers. When I read it, I could hear Martin Carthy’s voice reciting those words, playing the part of the priest at the funeral, and I’m so excited to tell you that he agreed to do that. When he sent the file over, and we dropped it into the recording at the studio, it was so powerful; I actually had tears in my eyes because you know he has an acting background as well; he’s multi-talented.

You’ve also got Eliza Carthy producing the album. How did that come about?

We met in the Folk Rooms on the Clubhouse app. Eliza runs a room on Wednesday nights, and then on Thursday nights, Piers Cawley has a ballad room, and the same people tend to go to both. They’re fantastic people, and I can’t recommend both enough. To hear Eliza and Piers sing to you in your house is really glorious. It’s been wonderful working with Eliza too; she is a musical genius. Just wait until you hear her string arrangements.

So, that’s how we met. Eliza and everybody were really so positive about the songs because I would sing the early compositions. Their responses were so important to me. When songs are in their first early murmurings, almost bare bones, it’s hard to be objective, but I really trust everyone in there; they’ve all got excellent ears. It’s a lovely community.

What a perfect sounding board. You’ve mentioned you composed these deliberately in a folk style, so was it a case of borrowing tunes or using certain refrains at all?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t borrow any tunes; they just came to me. I’m really soaked in folk music and have been for most of my life, just through hearing Shirley Collins singing on the radio. I didn’t find out for many years what I had heard, but it was Collins with Our Captain Cried, which I recorded as a homage to her on my current album The Brown Girl and other Songs. So, I’ve been listening to and loving folk music for as long as I can remember. Therefore, it was quite easy for me to get the cadences, styles of melody and instrumentation that would be recognisable as folk.

In the latest issue of Hellebore, you described your process of sourcing these songs as ‘ghost-hunting’, and I was particularly taken with this quote: “I am ghost-hunting to align myself and my work with the notion of magic and enchantment as a radical stance.” I was also fascinated by how the Collective Unconscious ties into your work.

Well, the Collective Unconscious is key I think to so many things; we could talk all afternoon about this. But in terms of my work, what I most want to do is connect with other people on a level of feeling. If you give someone a book with stories in it, they will read the words, and they might recall the stories. However, if you can connect with people’s emotions and their hearts, they will have a very different experience of that story. It will filter into them in an almost bodily way and will become more meaningful to them. That’s all to do with collectivity. With the fact that while our lives and experiences can be radically different and almost seemingly oppositional at times, there is a deeper level where we can connect, in terms of feeling and also unconscious, which is where dreams happen and where art is made.

I’m very interested in the spaces in between logic and reason. I like to explore those spaces and investigate them. Maybe open them up a little bit, if I can. Because these little spaces are full of possibilities, almost anything can happen there. These moments of immersion in magic and things that don’t make sense are where I think some of the best ideas come. The Surrealists and the Dadaists before them did away with reason quite consciously because they felt it had led to the world wars. Dadaists thought if this is the case, we don’t want anything to do with it; we’ll go for illogic as an actual stance. So, there is a tradition in the arts of engaging with unreason purposefully.

You also quoted Mark Fisher, “the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it,” and I was interested in how you used that notion of eeriness as a bridge to this project as well. It feels like your catalogue of psych/wyrd folk has naturally informed this release.

Thank you, I’m glad you feel that way. This album that is coming out in October sounds quite different from my other work because I made a conscious decision to compose the music in ways that would hopefully appeal to more people, as I feel the stories are so important. So, I didn’t give them my usual wyrd handmaid-sounding treatment as I know that’s a bit more niche in terms of audience. My next album after The Sorrow Songs will return more to that former style.

How has it been working with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (anglo concertina, vocals), Hamilton Gross (violin, vocals) and Clarke Camilleri (banjo, guitar, vocals) on this album?

It was amazing working with them. They are all such brilliant musicians, and we had a lot of fun in the studio too. So, Cohen plays with Granny’s Attic; Hamilton plays with a band called Headnorth, and then Clarke is this amazing old-time banjo player and acoustic guitarist. All three of them are also amazing singers. I’d written a lot of harmonies for these songs, and they just got it. It was so lush working with them. It was important to me to put together a band as multicultural as possible, which also contained as many people of colour as possible too. You can go to a folk festival, and it’s perfectly possible to not see any other Black people, which is something that I think is changing, and I can hopefully be part of that change. But also, to make the point visually in terms of our presence as folk musicians of colour, because that’s a point that fits with the album and also the bigger picture that it speaks to.

The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs Of Black British Experience is out now, with the vinyl release to follow in early 2023.

Author Profile

Dan Dunn
Executive Managing editor

Editor and Admin at MarkMeets since Nov 2012. Columnist, reviewer and entertainment writer and oversees all of the section's news, features and interviews. During his career, he has written for numerous magazines.

Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply