Photo: Katrina Ohstrom / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on ‘Thread’

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Sally Anne Morgan
Thrill Jockey
11 September 2020

There are a number of ways to approach Sally Anne Morgan’s Thread. One could hear it as an LP influenced by 1970s-era fold-rock hybrids. Its opening track, a take on the British ballad “Polly on the Shore” — a song often associated with a capella singer George “pop” Maynard — sounds like something that might have appeared on Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief. Nathan Bowles’ drums on Morgan’s version carry similar buoyancy to Fairport’s then-drummer Dave Mattacks. There’s perhaps a bit of Sandy Denny in Morgan’s voice too. (Fairport even recorded their take on this sailor’s tale of plunder, war, and inevitable death long after Denny quit). But none of this really matters, and would only occur to someone who has happened to listen to these points of reference.

Thread’s mixture of traditional and original is allowed to be a platform for exploration. In “Polly’s” case, it’s Morgan’s clawhammer banjo playing, which drives the music, serving as both lead and melody. It sends the track heavenward long after the lyrics have rippled out into pristine waters. So then, a better way to hear this record is as a place where some of the outdated gristle of American, British-Isle-based folk music’s past has been pared to allow the tradition to have a fresh point of entry. Morgan’s passion for deep listening, her willingness to experiment, and her awareness of her and her partner Andrew Zinn’s rural four-acre Western North Carolina farm’s role in the process are what make Thread so magical.

That she’s able to so naturally recognize Appalachian folk and its musical ancestry as being connected to not only a wider world of ancient sounds, but also to modern minimalist experimentation is no surprise to anyone who’s heard her work with Black Twig Pickers. While they were steeped in old-time fiddling, they constantly pushed at the tradition’s seams. Later, as one half of the breathtaking duo House and Land with Sarah Louise, Morgan has recorded and performed music that draws directly from British and rural, southern US mountain tradition. Yet, they have used that framework to explore texture, patience, and blissful vocal ecstasy. With friends at festivals, she’s roped willing participants into jams that use fiddle music as launching pads for meditations on two-note fragments, played out until they decay.

On Thread, her first solo effort, she invites us all into a physical and metaphorical safe space on the track “Garden Song”, where her electric guitar and fiddle meander along a pattern that teases heartbreak as much as it does birth. The lyrics are innocent, but underneath that surface, they deal with a perpetual June of inclusion. Another original, “Sheep Shaped”, finds her fiddle and Bowles’ percussion in a playful tussle, taking old-time fiddling’s A-and-B-part tendencies and wrestling them into a dance tune created for some kind of social scene not yet invented.

A standout track in an album otherwise slathered in high points is “Ellemwood Meditation”, where Morgan’s fiddle and piano abandon rhythm and instead jostle in the flickering light. The piano pings echo as she taps into her inner Joanna Brouk for a meditative calm unlike anything else on Thread. And it’s a willingness to see the direct connection between music’s outermost vibrations that allow her takes on the album’s traditional songs new context. She even double-tracks her fiddle for an update on “Sugar in the Gourd”, a version of the tune like no other. And her voice, on songs such “Wagoner’s Lad”, is capable of the deepest of laments, delivered with subtle shifts in pitch, as notes flit off into the air. It’s one more amazing talent she possessives.

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan does several important things. She allows us to use our own artistic instincts to push toward healing. Morgan also recognizes that folk music, as it’s been approached, re-appropriated, dissected, and disrespected in the not-so-distant past, has no place in the 21st century. She understands that the fiddle music she’s been steeped in for years is to be regarded, but only to a point. It’s not to be smothered in revivalist praise; it’s simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

RATING 8 / 10