Record review: Angeline Morrison “The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs”

‘The Brown Girl’ is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous…the whole thing feels lighter than air.

By Thomas Blake

Folk music has a unique kind of liveliness that springs from its adaptability, pliability and ambiguity. No two interpretations of a traditional song are alike because no two performers share precisely the same experience. As a black singer working in a category of music largely associated with white voices, Angeline Morrison’s perspective is – due in part to historical marginalisation – particularly uncommon. Morrison is a vocal advocate for increased diversity in British folk music: later this year, she is due to release The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience, an attempt to redress the imbalance of history by writing black people’s stories back into the UK’s musical heritage. But first, we get to hear The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs, Morrison’s more orthodox take on a collection of ten traditional songs.

Recorded in Cornwall, where the Birmingham-born Morrison has long been a resident, The Brown Girl is an intimate experience, musically minimal but full of warmth. A cappella opener, The Green Valley, is a beautiful introduction to her singing, which has a clarity and sweetness that belies the moral twists and ambiguities at play in the lyrics. Although this and most of the other songs here do not deal with explicitly black protagonists, lines like ‘Am I bound or am I free?’ take on deeper layers of meaning in Morrison’s rendition, proof of how vivid and mutable folk songs can be.

The multi-tracked vocals of Our Captain Cried have a bewitching and otherworldly quality and also serve to emphasise the song’s multiple perspectives, while the title track sees her joined by co-producer Nick Duffy (of the Lilac Time) on spidery acoustic guitar. It’s a combination that brings to mind Shirley Collins’ work with Davy Graham or, more recently, Stephanie Hladowski and C. Joynes’ album The Wild Wild Berry.

Morrison has dabbled in folk horror, 60s-style psych and hauntology in her Ambassadors Of Sorrow guise. This affinity with the more eldritch reaches of the British musical landscape is there in abundance on the spooked recorders of The Cruel Mother and the drones of When I Was A Young Girl. The Well Below The Valley revels in its dark themes of infanticide and incest: Morrison’s voice is eerily confiding, strangely present, insistent even at its quietest. The brutal violence of Lucy Wan is rendered with a soft immediacy that makes it all the more chilling. Morrison has stunning control over the emotional depths of these songs. Her musicianship is equally impressive – Idumea (an eighteenth-century hymn written by Charles Wesley) floats on a rippling gauze of dulcimer, and a brisk, autoharp-led run-through of Bonny Cuckoo is bright and blossomy.

The Brown Girl is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous. Every multi-tracked harmony or subtly plucked string has its place, and the whole thing feels lighter than air. That is a remarkable achievement, given the gravity of the subject matter in many of these songs, the layers of history they have accrued over time, and the wholly new perspective Morrison brings to them. By the time of the final, contented exhalation that puts a seal on the closing track, Must I Be Bound, it’s almost as if a satisfying but mysterious journey has been undertaken, one that will lead ultimately to many further destinations.

The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs is out now.

Fairport Convention: The tragedies behind the pioneers of folk rock

By any measure, it was a period of prodigious creativity. Between June 1968 and December 1969, Fairport Convention released their first four albums — and changed the course of music both in Britain and further afield.

By John Meagher

By any measure, it was a period of prodigious creativity. Between June 1968 and December 1969, Fairport Convention released their first four albums — and changed the course of music both in Britain and further afield.

The third, Unhalfbricking, was their first to chart, and helped make them one of the UK’s most critically acclaimed bands. The next, Liege & Lief, which came out in the last month of the 1960s, is widely regarded as one of the most influential folk-rock albums ever, a record that fuelled the creative juices of a young Christy Moore and continues to resonate with such contemporary luminaries as Lankum.

Fairport Convention have had more members than Everton and Watford’s recent managerial roll-call combined and they play a Dublin show this evening in the auspicious surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Co-founder Simon Nicol and longest-serving member Dave Pegg will be among the quintet to play in Jonathan Swift’s old stomping ground.

But, impressive as the band’s longevity has been, it’s the line-up centred on the rare talents of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny more than half-a-century ago that ensures Fairport’s lofty place in the popular culture canon.

The story of early Fairport Convention is one of youthful ambition, magnificent musical virtuosity and seemingly boundless creativity. It’s also one underscored by a tragedy that threatened to destroy the band. Remarkably, they came back even stronger, even if Thompson and Denny were soon to take other creative paths.

The band’s origins date to 1966. Thompson was just 17 when he and Nicol, along with Ashley Hutchings, formed a band and started to knock out Bob Dylan and Byrds covers. They got their name from ‘Fairport’, the large mock Tudor house in London that was owned by Nicol’s family: the early incarnation was peopled by middle-class grammar-school educated kids.

The group hit the ground running. Soon they were supporting Pink Floyd, who were also going places fast thanks to their mercurial leader Syd Barrett. At one of those Floyd gigs, in July 1967, Fairport Convention opened, while the headliners had to contend with the fact that Barrett had just overdosed on LSD. David Gilmour had to deputise.

It was at that show that Fairport met the American producer Joe Boyd, who would produce their self-titled debut and the four albums that followed it, including the illustrious pair mentioned above. Boyd’s part in the great British folk revival should never be underestimated.

While they showed considerable promise on their debut album, there were few signs about what was to come. Having taken their sonic cues from the other side of the Atlantic, they were dubbed “the British Jefferson Airplane”.

Things started to pick up when Sandy Denny joined the band in 1968, replacing Judy Dyble, who later claimed she had been “unceremoniously dumped”. A couple of years older than Thompson, Denny had already cut her teeth as vocalist with English folkies the Strawbs. Continue reading

Morris On “Cuckoo’s Nest”

TRADITIONAL LYRICS

From the recording Morris On, by Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, John Kirkpatrick, Barry Dransfield and Dave Mattacks.

  1. As I was a-walking one morning in May,
    I met a pretty fair maid, anon to her did say,
    “For love I am inclined, and I’ll tell you me mind,
    That me inclination lies in your cuckoo’s nest.”
  2. “Me darling,” says she, “I am innocent and young,
    And I scarcely can believe your false deluding tongue;
    Yet to see it in your eyes and it fills me with surprise,
    That your inclination lies in me cuckoo’s nest.”

    Chorus:
          Some like a girl who is pretty in the face,
          And some like a girl who is slender in the waist;
          But give me a girl that will wriggle and will twist.
          At the bottom of the belly lies the cuckoo’s nest.
  3. “Then me darling,” says he, “if you see it in me eyes,
    Then think of it as fondness and do not be surprised,
    For I love you, me dear, and I’ll marry you I swear
    If you let me clap me hand on your cuckoo’s nest.”
  4. “Me darling,” says she, “I can do no such thing,
    For me mother often told me it was committing sin,
    Me maidenhead to lose and me sex to be abused,
    So have no more to do with me cuckoo’s nest.”
    Chorus
  5. “Me darling,” says he, “it is not committing sin,
    but common sense should tell you it is a pleasing thing,
    For you were brought into this world to increase and do your best,
    And to help a man to heaven in your cuckoo’s nest.”
  6. “Then me darling,” says she, “I cannot you deny,
    For you’ve surely won me heart by the roving of your eye.
    Yet to see it in your eyes that your courage is surprised,
    So gently lift your hand in me cuckoo’s nest.”
    Chorus
  7. So this couple they got married and soon they went to bed,
    And now this pretty fair maid has lost her maidenhead;
    In a small country cottage they increase and do their best,
    And he often claps his hand on her cuckoo’s nest.
    Chorus