A stunning and important work of historical research set to some of the best folk tunes you’ll hear this year.
This is a project that has been in the planning since 2018. Meuross says of it: ”I realised how little I knew about Black History in Britain; how little I’d been taught growing up; how little I knew of Empire and how it was made; how little I knew of the grand mansions and sprawling estates, and the enormous handed down wealth, and the great men and women of history who symbolised greatness and colonial and racial superiority and to a large extent how their greatness was achieved, and at what cost to others….”
Reg Meuross has written many songs about historical people and events over the years. The way he approaches social and political commentary is what sets him apart from lesser artists. The thoughtful lyrics don’t descend into polemic, preferring to inform and illuminate his subject. The Southwest of England and especially Bristol largely built their prosperity on the slave trade, and are becoming increasingly troubled about that past. So an album of songs that sets out carefully researched stories is very timely.
It was always possible that the subject matter might outweigh the quality of the music. Meuross has opted for a relatively simple musical palette. Working with kora master Jali Fily Cissokho and concertina virtuoso Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne this is a largely traditional-sounding folk album with the Kora taking the place of fiddle or mandolin in the arrangements. Strings are used effectively on the title song. This is set as a traditional hymn, with words that reflect the Church of England’s 2020 apology for its long acquiescence to the slave trade.
The album starts with ‘The Jesus of Lubeck’, which was a ship given to John Hawkins, by Elizabeth the first, to conduct slave voyages in, along with another naval hero Francis Drake. ‘England No More’ moves the action the 17th Century, by which time most ports in Devon and the Bristol Channel were prospering from slavery. Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s concertina provides a jaunty backing to the story of another form of slavery, that of the press gang which grabbed men of the street to work on the ships that plied the trade, and indeed to become slaves themselves.
This even-handed approach to the subject matter is a key to the success of ‘Stolen From God’, and nowhere more than in addressing the controversial subject of Edward Colston. ‘Good Morning Mr Colston’, is dominated by the Kora, and tackles head-on the contradiction of much of Bristol being built on the profits of the slave trade. This is something that renaming a few buildings will not wipe away, as Meuross acknowledges. This is a complex issue and will be playing out in the city for many years yet. “Good morning Mr Colston your philanthropy is plain. There’s hardly hall or street or school that doesn’t bear your name. It’s a golden chain that binds you to a poison legacy. No statue or memorial can hide your history. Good morning Mr Colston when will your soul be free?” Again the music is equal to the weight of the story and you will find yourself nodding along to the tune while pondering its message, which is the mark of any good piece of social commentary, bring the audience in with a good tune and then you have medium to inform them.
‘Stole Away’ is written in the voice of a slave Olaudah Equiano who bought his freedom and wrote a memoir that became a leading text in the movement for abolition. As with most of the rest of the songs here, using traditional English folk styles to illustrate stories that don’t reflect well on the country is the ideal way to get people listening. The musical highlight of the album is ‘The Breath of England’, the story of James Somersett, subject of one of the first legal challenges to slave-owning.
‘Bridgwater’ is close behind it musically and the blend of kora and harmonica in the poppy tune has a celebratory tone for the beginning of abolition. The Somerset town was another prominent port for the trade, but I didn’t know that American abolitionist Frederick Douglass had visited the town.
The album closes with ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, an effective coda to the album, which looks at Pierre Courpon, the first slave recorded marrying a local Devon woman. The hopeful tone of the tune and the optimistic tone of acceptance in the words once again hide a darker tale.
‘Stolen From God‘ is as much a piece of historiography as art. Treating it as entertainment doesn’t feel altogether right. But the truth is that it is one of the best folk albums I’ve heard in a long time. We might have expected that from Reg Meuross, but the consideration, thought and research that has gone into producing ‘Stolen From God’ is on another level altogether. Last year AUK’s Paul Kerr wrote about Angeline Morrison’s ‘The Sorrow Songs’, and rightly praised it as an essential record. This current album is the next step in coming to terms with the awful crimes of slavery. The fact that it is also an entertaining blend of English and African instruments and uses the folk styles of England as a counterpoint to the harsh lessons means there’s only one possible score.
Reg is the best songwriter in the country right now. The songs I’ve heard so far are right up there…