Category: Waterson:Carthy

Folk Families: The Waterson/Carthy Clan
(Waterson:Carthy, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Lal Waterson covers & more!)

October 2nd, 2010 — 09:24 pm

Long before there was such thing as an American folk movement, the tradtunes and folk hymns of Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales – including the 305 songs and variants which would eventually become known as the Child Ballads, after to their late nineteenth century collector Francis James Child – came to our shores singly, one or two at a time, in the hands and voices of several successive centuries of migrant generations. There, they found listeners longing for the sounds and stories of their ancestral homes, who took the songs, made them theirs, and turned them outwards to the culture at large, where they were reframed and transformed in the cultural melting pot that we call folkways.

What with our nation’s birth as a colony, in other words, it’s no wonder Britfolk has ever been in the American folkstream, part and parcel of its origins. But one of the wonderful benefits of the new digital realm is that it has allowed us to go fully global as listeners. As long as there are folkbloggers in Britain, the songs and songbooks of new musicians who sing the songs of their native lands, and whose playing styles, tropes, and themes are steeped in their own local folkways, come to us out of the mists as bodiless immigrants themselves.

From the newly-tuned indiefolk of James Yorkston and The Unthanks to the sweet sounds of Kate Rusby and Ruth Notman, the younger of these voices have found me unawares, shocking me out of the ethnocentric gaze that inevitably develops in those who know that folk is ultimately a local phenomenon, even as the world comes on connected. And it’s a good thing, truly, to be reminded that folk sounds are cultural sounds, and that ours is by no means the center of the world of interconnected communities. It’s part of why the world of folk is so rich, so diverse, so vast, after all.

But even as these new voices help spread the gospel of the old, they also remind us of other, older artists – Dougie MacLean, Dick Gaughan, and others both living and long-passed – whose quiet names grow ever fainter here on the other side of the pond despite long-standing homeland recognition as iconic spear-carriers of tradition. And though to me, these artists are equally new, tracking their influence and early careers helps us better understand the newest generations of tradfolk-grounded singer-songwriters from the isles – and, ultimately, the histories which make our own local folkforms.

As part of that ongoing exploration, today we take a look at a family of musicians whose voices were strong enough to cross the seas, finding a place in good record shops and in the hands of small-bore redistributors and collectors long before the advent of the instantaneous world brought them to my own heart, even as their names scatter to the wind on the label notes and copyrights of hundreds of songs. Without any further ado, then, we bring you The Waterson family, whose influence – on our ears, on our shores, and on the constant new voices who come to us from the once-United Kingdom – is as deep and vast as any.

Were I older, but with the same sensibilities in my youth that I have today, I probably would have discovered today’s featured clan through The Watersons – revivalists of the old traditional songs of their native Yorkshire and beyond who formed around the core sibling trio of Norma, Mike, and Elaine (Lal) Waterson in the sixties and, after four year hiatus from ’68-’72, were born again in the seventies to increasing popular acclaim.

Well known their native land for their sparse instrumentation, close harmonies, and soulful treatment of well-arranged songs both traditional and original, The Watersons recorded over ten albums over three decades with a fluid line-up that would later grow to include Mike’s daughter Rachel, Norma’s singer-songwriter husband Martin Carthy, and their own daughter Eliza Carthy, before spinning off into various incarnations of the group, including ongoing English folk supergroup Blue Murder, a name originally adopted for a Waterson/Swan Arcade side project in the mid-eighties, and a one-shot collection of Waterson/Carthy women under the moniker The Waterdaughters.

But like many American listeners, I suspect, I’ve discovered the Waterson family in fits and starts, predominantly through coverage, working backwards through their catalog as each member came to me in solo or small group performance. Only this year, in fact, have I started to steep myself in the earliest work from the family – the elder generation, if you will – after years of hearing their songs in the hands of others, their voices in smaller collaborations, primarily via compilations and tribute albums.

Today, the Waterson/Carthy family torch is carried on predominantly by Martin, Norma, and their daughter, second generation folksinger and fiddler Eliza Carthy, who have been performing as Waterson:Carthy since 1994, and can be heard on every installment of the delightful Folk Collection series produced by Topic Records, as a trio and in pairings with other artists and bands. Eliza, Norma, Mike, Martin, and Lal’s children Maria Gilhooley and Oliver Knight continue to work together sporadically in various guises, coming together under the name The Waterson Family for the odd tribute concert or one-off concert. And most of their work, with the exception of Eliza’s solo outings, remains traditional in focus.

Though they made their name through traditional song, various members of the group did occasionally pen original songs, both for the family and for their own solo careers. Most notably, Lal Waterson, who passed on unexpectedly from cancer in 1998, released four duo albums in her time – one with Mike, one with Norma and daughter Maria, and two with son Oliver. A popular solo artist and collaborator, Eliza has featured her own compositions on several albums. And Martin Carthy, who was a solo singer-songwriter in his own right before marrying Norma – his arrangement of Scarborough Fair was unknowingly adopted by Simon and Garfunkel – has continued to tour and perform as a solo artist and frontman for other groups throughout his career, in addition to performing with his daughter, spouse, and others of the family.

Coming at the family backwards has meant finding coverage before the tradfolk – a not-atypical approach for a coverfan, as I noted in last week’s review of the coverblogger’s collections process, but an oddity in terms of recognizing the Waterson clan for that work which made them famous. But it seems to have been a success, if by that we mean that I have come to both appreciate and love the work of all members of the Waterson/Carthy family.

Norma’s voice, especially, comes across as evermore haunting as she ages, with her recent turn on traditional tune Poor Wayfaring Stranger a tour de force, comparable to Johnny Cash’s later work. Some of Eliza’s modern folkrock production is a bit unusual to the American ear – check out the two solo covers below to see what I mean – but it grows on you. And though their harmonies are startling and powerful for those who think of folk as something about a man and a guitar, there’s no denying that the full family turn on Norwegian Wood turns the clock way, way back on the Beatles songbook, proving that some sentiments are timeless, after all.

As a third “shadow” installment of our last week’s series, then, today we present a history of personal discovery – with some choice solo and small group work from the Watersons themselves, followed by a collection of Lal Waterson covers as a bonus set. Looked at in terms of chronology, we’re two generations past due. But uncovering roots is a vital component of the folk process, one often best done through the lens of the self. And, after all, better late than never is an understatement, here.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: A new Dylan tribute tickles our indiefolk fancy, and we reveal the full tracklist for this year’s “free if you donate” Summer Bootleg Sampler!

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