Waterson:Carthy – Holy Heathens And The Old Green Man (2006)

I always listen to this in the middle of the calendar year. When it’s time for music festivals in the long days up north, it’s short days and cold weather here in the south. Johannesburg is a mile above sea level, and whilst we might argue about exactly how cold it is there’s no doubting that it’s cold.

This album is mostly, but not entirely, songs that have some connection to Winter or to the solstice or to Christmas (if you wish to differentiate between the two). Mostly but not entirely they’re traditional songs that have been passed down through the ages and whose ultimate origin is now uncertain. Things can be deceptive (although there is no deceit). There’s a song to St George whose lyrics and tune seem to drip with tradition, but it’s a contemporary song, written by one of the greats of English folk music, and a repeated collaborator with Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick. Some of the Christmas songs are rooted in the apocryphal gospels or combine the gospel with pre-Christian traditions and attentive listening will reveal details that present a take on Christianity that you will not here preached in many contemporary churches.

Unmistakably modern, though informed by tradition, is “Jack Frost”, a tribute to the “master craftsman” who leaves his chilly work on the windows in the English winter. It’s very well sung by Eliza Carthy, and written by her uncle Mike Waterson.

Sometimes the meaning of a song is a bit uncertain. In his typically excellent and enlightening liner notes Martin Carthy admits to puzzlement about the opening track – an old New Year carol  – and especially the repeating line “residue sing residue”. He argues that on some levels it doesn’t matter, and really here it doesn’t because it’s such a marvellous performance, rich with the joy that the Waterson family take in simply singing. They added to the lyrics, but clearly this was always about the solstice rather than about Christmas.

The vocals are very much too the fore here, and several songs are a capella with the core band being augmented by three newer names from the surprisingly vital English folk scene – Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley.

Typically English, I think, and rich with old-fashioned (but not ancient) Christianity is “Time To Remember  The Poor”. “Residue” is one song from this album that I love and find topical at this time of year, and “Time To Remember The Poor” is the other – though it goes on to remind us that even when the weather warms up the poor are still with us. It’s marvellously sung in a very English choral style.

As with the previous Waterson:Carthy album that I commented on, this one closes with a baptist hymn, this one titled “Gloryland”. I am struck by how much richer these old hymns are than the modern praise and worship music – it’s not just pop that is getting more simplistic. The tune and lyrics are far richer. Eliza Carthy delivers one of my favourite vocal performances. But more than anything else this album presents again the special magic of the extended Waterson family. Nobody else makes the business of making music sound so joyous.

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