The year is 193CE, and Rome has a new emperor; Lucius Septimus Serverus. This era sees the Roman Empire at its peak, with territories stretching from North Africa, all the way to modern day Turkey and across most of Western Europe, covering all of Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall. Serverus is viewed today as a generally successful military strategist and politician, but what is arguably the most remarkable aspect of his life is that he stands today as Britains first, and only (that we know of) Black leader.
Yet, Serverus is a name seldom mentioned in our history textbooks, and we find the precedent of erasing people from the African diaspora has been ingrained in our society since the Romans left Britain. A sad precedent which reached all areas of our culture, including our music, and we find very few folk songs written about the Black experience in Britain.
Thankfully, we have a glimmer of hope in the form of Angeline Morrison, who has endeavoured to dig up the lost histories of the Black ancestors of Britain, and she has set them beautifully to an album in the style of traditional British folk music, entitled The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience.
Morrison spent a year researching and has managed to collaborate with a plethora of the top folk musicians in the country, all of whom delivered top performances on each track. The stories themselves are masterfully told, and the way that they flow so elegantly over the sounds of traditional folk music is truly poignant, with Morrison delivering catchy and hummable, yet eerie and haunting vocal melody lines.
There is a real subtlety to the storytelling and the whole album shifts effortlessly between the hard-hitting stories of slave-ship tragedies like on Unknown African Boy, to the more upbeat sing-a-long choruses such as at the end of Black John. This may seem like a strange juxtaposition, but it is important to remember that this album is crafted as traditional British folk music, where jolly melodies and jaunty guitars are often the backdrop to demure tales of loss, death, crime and other such melancholic subjects.
The dream for Morrison is to have these songs chanted out-loud in folk sessions across the country; it would be wonderful for this to become a reality and to hear these once-lost Black histories of Britain sung aloud and retold for generations to come.Harvey Coates
Released by Topic Records on CD and digitally 7 October 2022. Produced by Eliza Carthy.
1. Interlude - Some Terrible Habits
2. Unknown African Boy (d. 1830)
3. Black John
4. Interlude - These Little Ones
5. The Beautiful Spotted Black Boy
6. Mad-Haired Moll O’Bedlam
7. Interlude - Nobody Round Here Likes It
8. The Hand of Fanny Johnson
9. Cinnamon Water
10. Hide Yourself
11. Cruel Mother Country
12. Interlude - In the Village
13. The Flames they do Grow High
14. Interlude - Need Not Apply
15. Go Home
16. Slave No More (feat. Martin Carthy)