Review: Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy (Cambridge Junction)

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It’s always a treat to see either of these two, although this is the first time I’ve seen the pair of them perform together (aside from with The Imagined Village). Martin and Norma Waterson, yes; Martin and Dave Swarbrick, yes; Eliza and her band, yes; just dad and daughter, not previously. And the dynamic was a lot of fun, two dry wits together expressing their love for the slightly absurd nature of the music they play, whilst also conveying the genuine emotion that they find in the folk songs — and more recent compositions — that they perform. Not to mention the fact that they are incredibly accomplished musicians, one of whom played the version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ that provided the inspiration for Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. And he’s still one of the humblest and most genuine people you’ll ever encounter.

The set-list was largely made up of tracks recorded on their joint album, The Moral of the Elephant (2014), though Martin also played a recent acquisition — the name escapes me, and it doesn’t seem to have made it onto the setlist.fm page — that had apparently dogged him for some time before he’d managed to pin down the melody that he was so full of praise for.  The fact that, at 76, he’s still collecting and adapting material made this song the perfect example of his mantra that folk music is not about heritage but about life, a mantra reinforced by Eliza’s solo take on ‘Nelly Was a Lady’. The latter is a song written by Stephen Foster and taught to her by a colourful Canadian family friend, described as a great source of ‘hideographs’ (if I remember correctly). The tale of young Foster and his tragic, accidental death is as poignant and vaguely absurd as any you’d find in a broadside ballad (he tripped in his tiny New York apartment and hit his head on the sink as he fell, as there was no space to fall anywhere else); though like many ballads it needs to be read within its historical context. Eliza is a great defender of pop music and the songwriters who are able to write reams of hit songs, whether for broadside ballads, Motown or any other genre. She places the music that she and Martin perform within an ongoing tradition, the two of them noting common reference points and the underlying universality of emotions in these songs: people still love a good lock-in at the pub (Blackwell Merry Night), mothers still suffer the agony of losing their sons to war (Monkey Hair) and six individuals will still struggle to reach a common solution if they don’t work together (The Elephant).

Most of these songs aren’t the anonymous, centuries old pieces of tradition that I suppose many people associate folk music with. The three just mentioned also have named composers, and even the tracks they played with a more mysterious transmission history have been moulded and edited by different singers, performers and composers. An individual who has left their mark on a song is as worthy of discussing as the song itself at this kind of gig. When there’s not a composer or someone to credit the ‘trad. arr’ to, Eliza memorably described the great old ballads as icebergs or glaciers: something that starts off vast, but shears off pieces here and there as it travels the world. It’s perhaps a theory that skims bit close to Russian formalism for my taste, but I can’t deny that folk music does tend to gravitate towards particular types of story… Two grand narratives they put together in their own way were the ‘girl has to be quiet with her lover because her mum’s upstairs and has a vast collection of weaponry for dealing with just such lads’ (I paraphrase, but Eliza described it along these lines!) and ‘died of love’. Examples of the former that may be familiar are Silver Dagger and Kate Rusby’s ‘The Cobbler’s Daughter’, whilst the latter tends to crop up all over the place, often tacked onto the end of a narrative that’s about one sort of ill-fated relationship or another (many of Jim Moray’s preferred traditional songs seem to end like this…). The idea of the mother wanting to save her daughter from an unhappy future relationship, and the intensity of heartache (whether it’s after a break-up or a death) are at the core of these songs, and it’s not hard to see why they endure.

Another thing I’ve always admired about Martin and Eliza’s views on the music they play is their willingness to use it against modern narratives of purity and nationalism. Supporters of Folk Against Fascism, they were involved in setting up The Imagined Village as a multiracial, multicultural folk band that could create a sound that did justice to modern Britain — and historical Britain’s — reliance on immigration and the labour of its colonies. Just go and have a listen to Benjamin Zephaniah helping them re-work Tam Lyn. At this gig it was hard not to hear an anti-Brexit, anti-isolationist streak in the mischievous glee with which Eliza pointed out that, once upon a time, the popular English view was that Napoleon was their saviour, not Wellington… ‘The Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ comes across as a sibling to ‘Bonaparte’s Lament’, which Eliza recorded with her mother, Norma Waterson, on Gift (2010), providing a nice link between the two albums.

Musically, the two of them have a very particular dynamic; they’ve been playing together since Eliza was born, so there’s no attempt to make her into a substitute Swarb. And though she’s got her mother’s lungs, she’s a different generation of musician, and her voice and violin loop elegantly over and around Martin’s solid, syncopated guitar. Occasionally, as on the encore rendition of John Barleycorn, her enthusiasm doesn’t leave much space for Martin’s voice, but on the whole it’s a good balance, and even when they mess-up their intro they seem to be on the same wave-length.

An evening with a Carthy or a Waterson will always come with good stories as well as fantastic music. This was no different, with Eliza tending to provide the longer, meandering shaggy-dog stories behind the songs, and Martin occasionally expressing his enthusiasm for one melody or another, or muttering fond complaints at his guitar, which was prone to misbehave in the heat of the venue. It was a delight: consummate showmanship, peerless musicians and great storytelling. And, if you’ve any memories of seeing any Watersons or Carthys perform over the last decades, Eliza would really really love to know about it, so she can reconstruct her own family’s iceberg.

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