In late August, the town of Wadebridge in north Cornwall is teeming with Morris dancers, and pub gardens are alive with song. The occasion is the Cornwall folk festival, and in the late summer haze, everyone gets very merry.
Nevertheless, “merry” isn’t the right word for Angeline Morrison’s performance on Friday night. Standing alone, alternating between accompanying herself on autoharp, mountain dulcimer and mbira and singing a cappella, she previews her new album, The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience.
Tall and with a mournful voice, Morrison is anything but a conventional folk singer – no jokes, boozing or bonhomie. I feared she might find Wadebridge challenging, the audience consisting almost entirely of older people who had just sat through a set by a more jovial raconteur. Instead, in her quiet intensity, Morrison compels everyone to listen.
When we meet in the Swan pub before her set, Morrison describes the premise of her new album as “folk memory” – 11 original songs in which she sets out the ancestral Black British experience that she found to be entirely missing from the country’s folk canon.
“The traditional songs of the UK are rich with storytelling, and you can find songs with examples of almost any kind of situation or person you can think of,” she says. “While people of the African diaspora have been present in these islands since Roman times, their histories are little known – and these histories don’t tend to appear in the folk songs of these islands.”
Morrison was born in Birmingham to a Jamaican mother and a father from the Outer Hebrides. As an infant, she heard Shirley Collins singing on BBC Radio 4, which had such a profound impact that when she heard the album the music came from decades later, she recognised it as the source of her quest into folk. “It went straight to my heart,” she says. “I’m really interested in the concept of folk memory and the Jungian concept of ‘the collective unconscious’. I think there’s a truth in it, certainly for me and my love of folk arts and folk culture.”
Morrison was 17 when she attended her first folk club. “I asked my dad to accompany me – I think I felt more self-conscious about being a 17-year-old girl out with her dad than I did being a Black person in a room full of white people. But it’s true that I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been in a folk club with other people of colour.”
She became active on the Midlands music scene: she is half of the duos We Are Muffy, and Rowan: Morrison, and sings with freakbeat bands the Mighty Sceptres and the Ambassadors of Sorrow. Since 2002 she has lived in Truro, Cornwall, and lectured on songwriting and the history of 20th-century popular music at Falmouth University. “I really love living here,” she says. “There are some amazing folk clubs.”
Her adopted home has influenced The Sorrow Songs. The haunting opening track, Unknown African Boy (d.1830), was the first song Morrison wrote for the album. “I learned that slave ships regularly passed by the Isles of Scilly and several were wrecked. A local newspaper article of the time listed some of the items washed up on shore: palm oil, elephant tusks, boxes of silver dollars and gold dust, and the body of an unknown ‘West African boy – estimated age around eight’. The boy is buried in St Martin’s churchyard, Isles of Scilly. I wrote this song from the perspective of his mother.”
Cornwall’s rich history of sea shanties also has roots in Black musicianship. It is now thought, says Morrison, “that most sea shanties were originally composed by slaves in the West Indies to be sung while they unloaded boats”, just as the blues developed from the field hollers of cotton plantation slaves. I jokingly mention Fisherman’s Friends, the nationally famous choir from nearby Port Isaac. Morrison laughs. “It’s great they’ve attracted so much interest to a genre that’s been ignored for so long. What they’re doing is different to how I approach folk song,” she says diplomatically.
There are considerable differences, not least Morrison being an academic garlanded with grants from the Arts Council England and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, alongside Cambridge folk festival’s Christian Raphael prize. She is signed to Topic records, the UK’s oldest and foremost folk label. “People have been incredibly welcoming and supportive,” says Morrison. “When I’ve described The Sorrow Songs project people are very enthusiastic – they want British folk to be more inclusive.”
The Sorrow Songs is produced by British folk royalty Eliza Carthy, who signed on after the two engaged during lockdown – Carthy ran Carthy’s Folk Room on the Clubhouse app to give her community a space to share their music and communicate. “I started sharing sketches of songs and she believed in what I was trying to achieve,” says Morrison. “As producer she brings so much experience and is a brilliant arranger.”
Carthy is equally laudatory. “Angeline’s whole approach, as folk singer and dancer in the British Isles with her dual heritage, is something that fascinated me from the moment I met her,” she says. “I’m so grateful to be a small part of this insanely important body of work – I hope I have done this piece of history justice.”
Justice has been done: The Sorrow Songs is a beautifully sombre listen with Morrison’s voice out front – often alone or accompanied by harmony – while the instrumentation is sparse and perfectly felt. It lets the stories she has unearthed come to the fore. Cruel Mother Country is a meditation on the Black diaspora who arrived in the UK alongside the British troops they served with during the American war of Independence. “In 1775 and 1776, enslaved Africans in the US were encouraged to put their lives at risk by escaping to join the British army,” says Morrison. “They were assured the Queen of England was Black – the Black Queen in question was Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, wife of King George III. We may never know the truth about Queen Charlotte’s ancestry, but we do know that gossip about it was rife at the time. The promised homeland these enslaved Africans risked their lives in exchange for never materialised. Most became homeless on the streets of London.”
In writing music about these stories, Morrison says, “you can give voice to something which would be absolutely unthinkable to talk about. People might not want to hear it because they can’t handle that level of pain. But, in a song, you can hold people’s attention. Or at least try to.”
I had read that Morrison is a record collector, so I present her with a copy of the Equals’ Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys. “Eddy Grant!” she says with glee. “Thank you.” Our conversation turns to Black British female folk singers who predated her efforts.
While fellow Brummie Joan Armatrading quickly moved from folk clubs to international stardom, the likes of Dorris Henderson and Nadia Cattouse, who settled in London from the US and Belize respectively, both made their mark as performers and recording artists in the 1960s before fading into obscurity. “Dorris Henderson recorded two albums with John Renbourne,” says Morrison. “He’s remembered while she’s forgotten – that says something about the British folk scene.”
Morrison’s hope, meanwhile, is that The Sorrow Songs will enter the folk vernacular. “I would be so happy if some of those songs ended up being the kinds of songs people stand up in folk clubs and sing,” she says. “If these stories of Black ancestors filter in, I would absolutely love that.”
This article was amended on 10 October 2022 to remove a reference to the Wadebridge audience being made up of “pensioners”, which contravened editorial guidelines. Text was also added to provide further context for the observation.