Waterson:Carthy – Common Tongue (1997)

Two of the leading lights of the English folk music scene in the 1960s were singer and guitarist Martin Carthy and the singing Waterson family. Carthy and the Watersons both embraced and loved the traditional English folk canon, but in both cases their presentation of those songs owed as much to themselves as to tradition.

The Watersons concentrated on the folk songs of their native East Yorkshire, but their harmonies were completely their own and stemmed from their own imaginations and from a practice of finding a key for each song that none of them could quite manage for the entirety of the song, thus forcing them to deviate from the bottom line melody and find new harmonies.

Carthy adopted the vocal style of Norfolk fishermen, but his guitar playing style was unique. He developed alongside the revolution in British folk guitar that began with Davy Graham and the DADGAD guitar tuning, but developed along different lines. He never embraced DADGAD, saying that he couldn’t come to terms with it, and developed a different tuning scheme of his own and pursued his own vision of the instrument. Nobody plays guitar like Martin Carthy does, and in the unlikely event that those songs were first sung with guitar for accompaniment, you can bet that the arrangements were nothing like Carthy’s.

Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy married in 1972 and Carthy became a member of the Watersons performing lineup.

Various forces slowly ate away at the Watersons and these days there is no act with that name and Norma is the sole remaining original Waterson. But Norma and Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy is a talented player and singer in her own right, and at some point Waterson:Carthy emerged – built around a core trio of Martin, Norma and Eliza. With Martin and Eliza maintaining parallel solo careers.

In 2008 I saw Martin Carthy play in a pub basement in London. I’d head much about him over the years but had little idea of his music. I was blown away – at times it felt literally so – by the passion of his performance and by his unique guitar style. And his guitar SOUND, rich and ringing.

Then in 2010 I saw a one-night show titled A Night Of Political Song. Martin Carthy was on the bill that night, and so were his wife and daughter.

On the tube out to the South Bank Center I was pondering the matter of song and politics and thinking that maybe governments were sometimes a bit too scaredy cat about political song. After all, they’re just songs, right?

Maybe 20 minutes into that show Norma Waterson was helped onto the stage. Clearly not in good health, she had to use a walking stick and sat down to perform. She started singing a Thathcher-era mining strike song “Coal Not Dole” and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. By the time she was done with that song I wanted to run out of the hall, make a placard and join a picket line.

And I understood exactly how potent a force a song could be.

Norma Waterson sang five songs that night. I will treasure the memory for ever. In a company that included her husband, he daughter, a crack band, Tom Robinson and my main man Richard Thompson she shone brightest of all. A superb performance. On one song she duetted with daughter Eliza and they put on a stunning display of vocal skills – but it felt like they did so more out of the sheer joy of singing rather than just showing off. Like her husband she showed an amazing ability to connect to the story in a song and deliver it to the audience, and like her husband when she presented a song from another century she didn’t treat it like a museum piece but presented it as a vibrant, vigorous living thing.

They didn’t confine themselves to their nominal territory that night. Norma started with a song written in the 1980s and also performed the American pop song from yesteryear “Buddy Can You Spare A Dime” (which got the then government and big business very worked up and was forced off of the radio stations). In my experience the greatest “folk” musicians are not snobbish or narrow in what they will perform. I have a Martin Carthy CD on which the grand old man of “folk” performs Heartbreak Hotel and a Bee Gees song.

On this album, though, and by design, Waterson:Carthy confine themselves to traditional English songs.

The musicianship is top notch. Are there people who think that “folk” music is all about a few strummed chords and maybe a blues lick or two? If so then think again! Eliza and Martin, with the help of accordionist Saul Rose display considerable skill and invention here.

There is an instrumental medley on which Eliza puts her fiddle chops on display – and they are mighty – and Martin demonstrates the great rhythmic drive that he can deliver. Martin’s guitar part on “Claudy Banks” (beautifully sung by Eliza) is wonderful, and a text book example of a part that nobody else could have conceived or executed. Eliza gets most of the soloing space, and her playing has a lovely, singing tone and that same joyous feel to it that was a trademark of the Watersons vocal style.

The album kicks off with “Ramble Away”, a song about an inconstant, wandering seducer. As Martin Carthy points out in typically excellent liner notes the character in the song does not disguise what he is – indeed he advertises it. It is the ladies that fall for him and then just fall. It’s in waltz time with a great melody that Norma Waterson has fun with. Eliza adds ornamentation and Martin’s guitar carries it all.

Martin also gets his mandolin out, giving “Rackabello” a great rhythm part. He sings, Norma and Eliza provide the backing vocals and Eliza syncopates outrageously in her solos. There is no percussion at all, but the rhythmic punch of the performance will get your toe tapping and thoughts of dancing should not be ruled out.

Throughout the performances are top class, as should be expected given the experience and reputation (and it is not hype) of the core trio. And they leave perhaps the best for last.

Norma’s brother Mike and sister Lal, both retired from touring by this time (but still alive), and Mike’s daugher Eleanor combine with Waterson:Carthy for an acapella performance of an old baptist hymn “Stars In My Crown”. It’s a wonderful, rich performance that is simultaneously authentic and sophisticated and gives us a taste of the trademark Waterson vocal style.

Martin, Eliza and Norma are members of a remarkable musical family that should be regarded as a national treasure in England. Their history and catalog is complex, large and sometimes obscure, but very well worth exploring. There are other musical familes – some well known, others less so – but I would venture that none of them make the business of making music sound as joyous as the extended Waterson family do. Common Tongue is a fine album, and because it looks forward to the future (now the “now”, in which Norma has retired and Martin and Eliza have recorded a duo album) and also back to the hey days of the Watersons serves as a fine starting point for anybody who wants to explore their remarkable body of music.

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