To embark on yet another review of the offerings of England’s foremost folk ensemble, Waterson:Carthy, is a bit like putting a pebble on top of the great pyramid of Cheops. It adds to the heap, but one suspects that it’s all been done before. Certainly here at Green Man Review we’ve placed a few bricks ourselves on the edifice, with reviews of other, more recent Waterson:Carthy recordings Dark Light and Broken Ground, the latter giving an extensive history of the group.
Waterson:Carthy, in more or less their present configuration comprising Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and their daughter Eliza Carthy, with melodeon players Saul Rose, and later Tim Van Eyken, have been an entity for over 10 years. Before that were the Watersons, and before that, and along the way … well, read your history books. They have achieved huge fame, and an enthusiastic following not only from the usual diehard fans of English tradition where you’d expect it, but in the wider community too. They receive, at the national level, a proportion of interest and respect accorded to no revivalist singers and players of traditional music outside certain small west African countries. Martin Carthy has been honoured with an M.B.E. and Norma has recently been awarded the O.B.E. They feature regularly on mainstream radio (well, it is the BBC), and their opinions and activities are frequently noted in the national press. Eliza is regarded not only as one of our finest young singers and interpreters of traditional music, but has a successful career catering to more mainstream musical tastes as well.
One would suspect, given the bolshie nature of many in the world o’ folk, that recognition by the government of services to folk music, an oft-quoted (and cringe-making) label of “the royal family of folk”, and indeed, mere survival at the pinnacle for a decade — nearly four decades if you count the Waterson years — would be the kiss of death for what passes for street cred among the legions of the iconoclastic. Surely elevation to the status of national treasure, solid, stolid and predictable, makes you a little too, well, establishment. Martin and Norma have their bus passes, for goodness’ sake!
Not so. What is striking about any of their recordings, and more so in a live performance is how fresh and exciting it all is. There is no sense, ever, that we’re trudging down the same old road. They’re passionate about their music, energetic in their constant research, engagingly enthusiastic about the songs and stories they relate, and overwhelmingly loyal to and respectful of the singers and musicians who have preserved these musical snapshots of other lives and other times and passed them on to us. Performances are masterful, creative and stimulating. On the faces of the audience, we see alternately the rapt, breathless, focused attention of a spaniel at the dinner table, or the manic glee of a child with a noisemaker. At 2004’s Cornwall Folk Festival, for example, all three Waterson:Carthy concerts had standing-room-only crowds. By the end, everyone was on their feet refusing to let them leave. These are superstars, yes, but superstars who also sat in the audience throughout everyone else’s set and who showed a keen interest in what others had to offer.
Whew! Now that some context has been established, on to the recording. Common Tongue was released in 1997, and is the second in their series. There hasn’t been a bad one so far, and what is notable is that the latest ones are as interesting as the first, and the earlier ones are as good as their latest. Waterson:Carthy have a unique sound that works. Despite such distinctive component parts, each member’s style of delivery never rubs up uncomfortably against any other, nor is it constrained in the interests of a homogeneous sound. The result is really more than the sum of the parts. In addition to Martin, Norma and Eliza, the performers here are Saul Rose on melodeon, Maclaine Coulston on hammer dulcimer, Barnaby Stradling bass, and Waterdaughters Lal Waterson & Maria Gilhooley with Mike & Eleanor Waterson on vocals on two of the tracks.
There are 13 tracks, five led by Norma, two by Martin, two by Eliza, as well as two tune sets, and two ensemble songs, more akin to the old Watersons sound. On these recordings, as in stage performance, it is Norma who is the icon. A calm, commanding presence, she sets the tone for everything else that happens. Someone once said of Stan Rogers that he had “a voice you could take a bath in,” and that could, with justification, be said of Norma. She imbues her songs with an intense passion without ever straying in the direction of the histrionic. You almost feel the entire audience straining forward to get closer.
Martin takes a lesser role in performance. Here he leads on two songs, but his trademark guitar work is everywhere, defining Waterson:Carthy’s sound. His passion for his beloved folk music is evident in his presentation, in the care he takes in his research and choice of material, and in his meticulous and illuminating liner notes.
Eliza is a good example of what a gifted craftswoman can do with the right apprenticeship. Her interpretation of traditional song is sweet, clear and innovative, while refreshingly free of the traps of gimmickry and cheap tricks that many younger interpreters feel they need in order to put their stamp on material. Her energetic fiddle drives the tune sets, and provides the underlay for many of the songs. Notable in particular is her accompaniment to the ballad “Maid Lamenting” in which the fiddle almost seems to be in conversation with the narrator.
These days, Saul Rose performs in a duo with Maclaine Coulston. On this recording, his clean and powerful melodeon is the engine in the tune sets, thrumming along amidst Martin’s tantalizingly syncopated guitar, and Eliza’s soaring fiddle.
Waterson:Carthy recordings collectively should be considered an encyclopaedia of the English folk song revival. There isn’t a bad one amongst them, and each one is thoroughly entertaining while leaving us a bit wiser.