Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy: Anchor

I’m going to post the next Good Post in a couple of days (it’s already written, as are several follow-ups), but today and tomorrow I’m going to talk about music. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing the new expanded editions of Michael Nesmith’s first five albums, which came out today, but today I’m going to talk about a new album, also released today,Anchor, by Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy with the Gift Band.

I don’t often talk on this blog about my love of traditional folk music, and particularly the music produced by the Waterson/Carthy family and their various associates. It’s one of many areas of music (like late 40s jazz, or Bach, or early twentieth century orchestral music) which I love as deeply as the 1960s pop music I write about here, but for which I don’t have a critical vocabulary or historical knowledge that allows me to talk about it sensibly — I love individual artists, and individual works, but can’t talk about it in the same way I can talk about, say, a Beach Boys album.

But this is a rather special album in a number of ways, and one of them is that it’s one of Waterson and Carthy’s periodic ventures into… not contemporary music, but music that at least has a credited writer, and which was largely written in living memory, so it’s an album I can talk about rather more intelligently than I could the more traditional music.

For those who don’t know, Norma Waterson was one of the Watersons, a family singing group that included her and her siblings, who largely revolutionised English traditional music in the 1960s and 70s. Eliza Carthy is her daughter, and Carthy’s father is Waterson’s husband Martin Carthy, who was as important to English folk guitar as the Watersons were to folk singing. Eliza Carthy herself is an astonishing vocalist and excellent violinist and absolutely magnetic stage presence.

All three of them appear on each other’s recordings regularly, to the extent that whatever label is on the record, whether it be one or more of their own names, their group Waterson: Carthy, or the various other group projects they’re involved in there’s a good chance that all three will be on the album — and indeed all three are on this album and take lead vocals — but this is special in a number of ways.

Firstly, it’s only the second mother-daughter duo album that Waterson and Eliza Carthy have ever released, as the follow up to 2010’s Gift — but that’s because it’s the first album-length project that Norma Waterson has been able to participate in since that time. Around the time of the release of Gift, she became seriously ill and spent three months in a coma, after which she had to reteach herself to speak and walk. Since then, she’s been unable to tour, only making one appearance a year, at “Normafest” in her home town of Whitby (at one point a few years ago there were plans for her to take part in a tour celebrating Ewan MacColl’s music, but she was too ill to take part in the end, although she’s supposed to be playing a show in London on Sunday — here’s hoping she’s well enough) and she hasn’t made a full album since until now, though she’s recorded odd tracks for other projects.

So the first thing to say about this is that her voice is still magnificent. Knowing that you’re listening to someone who’s nearly eighty, and who has been severely ill for the best part of a decade, you’d expect there to be flaws and signs of age in her voice. Indeed, even without her health problems, you might expect someone her age to have a rougher voice than in the past. Yet this is *very obviously* the same person who sang “Red Wine Promises” on Bright Phoebus back in 1972. You could almost imagine these vocals to have been recorded at the same sessions as that one.

Both mother and daughter are in excellent voice here — for those who don’t know their work, both are very powerful vocalists, with very strong Yorkshire accents and a very strong family resemblance. Waterson’s vocals have played a major part in defining what we think of as traditional English folk song, and there’s a solemnity and austerity to her voice which made her always sound an imposing matriarchal figure even in her youth, but she draws from a far wider range of influences in her singing than that may make her sound — I’ve seen it said that she counts Mighty Sparrow and Bessie Smith among her influences, and I can see that very clearly at times, as I can the more general jazz influence on her phrasing. Carthy, understandably, sounds very similar to her mother both in her voice and her phrasing, but her voice is slightly lighter, and lends itself to a humourous, playful, sound at times which Waterson’s perhaps wouldn’t.

But from the very beginning of the album, it’s clear that this isn’t an album of traditional folk. There are some notes on a double bass, some discordant piano chords, and then the arrangement congeals into something recognisable — it becomes a song, “Strange Weather”, which Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan wrote for Marianne Faithful in 1987, but which I’m more familiar with from Waits’ live performance of it on Storytellers. Waterson takes the lead, and she takes it at the same slow tempo as Faithful, rather than Waits’ carny barker feel, but there’s a Waitsianism to the arrangement, capturing Waits’ similarity to Kurt Weill — Lotte Lenya is another favourite of Waterson, from what I’ve read, and the harmonium, broken piano chords, and what sounds like bouzouki (sadly I bought this album as a download, and so don’t have instrument credits), along with Carthy’s skittering violin, give it a mitteleuropean feel. This is the definitive version of this song, now.

The second song, “The Elfin Knight”, would, one would imagine, be more traditional sounding, as it’s an old folk song, collected in this version by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, though versions of it are known to have been in circulation since the seventeenth century. A story of the Devil threatening to carry a woman off unless she can perform a series of impossible tasks, many of the tasks listed and the phrases used are familiar to modern listeners from “Scarborough Fair” (“buy me an acre of land/between the salty water and the salty sea strand”, “you’ll make for me a lovely Holland shirt/without any seams or that fine needlework”).

Musically, however, this is quite astonishing stuff — it’s based on a picked banjo measure and call and response vocals (“blow, blow, blow your winds oh” and “dreary winds will blow your plaidy away” after every line), and as far as that goes it’s traditional enough, but the multi-layered shrieking dissonant violins have an almost horror-movie feel to them — and at times Carthy’s solo violin sounds almost as dissonant and spiky as Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ playing on Zappa’s records (when one remembers that Zappa was a massive Ewan MacColl fan and made several attempts to record sea shanties, the connection might not seem so distant). Carthy takes the lead, with Waterson and Martin Carthy joining in for the responses.

At this point we start to see that there’s a strong connecting tissue between these different songs — there are themes and concepts that recur throughout — stars, the sea, the weather, beasts and monsters, religion — and turns of phrase we’ll hear again and again. There are minor resonances in many of them to do with race and colonialism too. There’s a *lot* to unpack here, but this is an album that works as a cohesive whole *far* better than one would imagine from the varied sources for the songs — it’s as if Waterson and Carthy (and producers Neill MacColl and Kate St. John ) have identified a whole separate tradition of songs

“The Beast” is a song I wasn’t previously familiar with, by Michael Marra — a song about the very beginnings of a relationship and being unsure about the person you’re with, enticed but yet scared. Some googling tells me that Marra wrote a musical based on Beauty and the Beast with the poet Liz Lochead, and I would imagine (but don’t know) that the origin of this song was in that. Certainly, it sounds like a musical theatre song — it has a slight resemblance to “Send in the Clowns”, although the arrangement plays down that style and plays up the traces of Scottish folk music in the melody.

It’s not a type of song that’s to my taste, and is to my mind the weakest thing on the album, but Waterson’s vocal is absolutely gorgeous, and it plays an important part in the flow of the album.

“The Widow’s Party” is a setting by Peter Bellamy of the Kipling poem (though with the racial slur in one verse thankfully replaced with “blokes”). Kipling’s poem was an ironic ballad about a battle, described as if it were a party (the “widow” in this case being Queen Victoria):

“What did you do for knives and forks,
Johnnie, Johnnie?”
We carries ’em with us wherever we walks,
Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
And some was sliced and some was halved,
And some was crimped and some was carved,
And some was gutted and some was starved,
When the Widow give the party.

In Kipling’s poem, the horror of this is played down somewhat in favour of black humour (and one gets the impression that when Johnnie is carried off he’s merely wounded, though many of his friends were killed). With the mournful setting, this changes, the humour leaches out, and it sounds like the soldier has been killed. It’s quite a haunting piece, and the sparse arrangement (building up as it goes on, but starting with just Carthy’s violin and both Martin and Eliza Carthy singing) makes it a minor highlight of the album.

The next song, “Lost in the Stars”, the title song from Kurt Weill’s last musical, might be the centrepiece of the whole record, the keystone that holds it all together — “Before lord God made the sea and the land, he held all the stars in the palm of his hand…”

It’s possibly Weill’s most beautiful melody, from a musical (about a black priest in South Africa) in which he tried to combine his own style with African-American spiritual music, Zulu music, and Anglican high church music. This song, about loss of faith and feeling like God is refusing to keep promises he’s made to his creation, is stunningly beautiful no matter who performs it. Here Waterson takes the lead, with Carthy joining in to harmonise later on.

And then we go from the sublime to the ridiculous, as Carthy takes the lead on the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, and turns in a version which is actually much more fun than Eric Idle’s original version — while Idle’s original is slick and showmanlike, Carthy (who has a wonderful ability with comic material, as anyone who’s ever seen her perform Ewan MacColl’s “Space Girl” will know — and I wish that at some point she’d do an entire album of funny songs… I bet she’d be wonderful singing Jake Thackray songs, for example, but I digress) gives the song a reading that lands somewhere between the music hall and 1920s blues, over a slightly detuned barrelhouse piano. (Incidentally they keep in the waltz-time instrumental section sometimes cut in other covers, with Carthy whistling rather than the Moog and orchestra of the original). The song was always one of Idle’s better ones, and this is great, especially when Carthy at the end goes into a full-on brassy roar which sounds like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, if they’d grown up on the North Yorkshire coast instead of the Deep South of the US.

“Shanty of the Whale” is the most modern song here, written by KT Tunstall, though it’s clearly inspired by the kind of traditional ballads that the Watersons and Carthys have made their careers singing. The song’s sung from the perspective of a dead and dismembered whale, although much of the imagery could equally apply to someone recovering from an abusive relationship. Waterson and both Carthys sing it together, over a minimal ambientesque backing with whalesong. It’s quite a haunting little piece.

“The Beast In Me” is a song that Nick Lowe wrote for Johnny Cash, about restraining one’s own darker impulses. It’s a great song, and Waterson sings it exquisitely, but there’s a bit of a mismatch of song and singer here, I feel. Waterson sounds too gentle, too thoughtful, in her vocals to get across the suppressed menace that the song requires. Or at least, that’s my view, but that might be because I’m so familiar with Cash’s reading of the song, which I can’t get out of my head when listening to this. It’s possible that if you’re not familiar with Cash’s version you might have a very different response, and certainly this sounds very nice — I’m just not sure that very nice is what the song needs.

But I may well be being very harsh here. Waterson’s melancholy take on the song is certainly a very different reading of the lyric, and a valid one.

This is then followed by a version of “Scarborough Fair”, performed by Martin Carthy more or less solo, with some piano and violin (and what might be a mandolin or banjo) coming in as the song progresses, but still mostly driven by Carthy’s guitar and vocal. In some senses this is a rather odd choice here — not only has Carthy recorded the song on multiple previous occasions, but also he’s neither of the credited artists on the album.

But on the other hand, the song fits perfectly into the album, and helps draw together several of the themes we’ve had before (in particular calling back to “The Elfin Boy”). The song is intimately associated with Martin Carthy, who popularised it (it was Carthy who taught the song to Paul Simon, when the latter was in Britain), and the extended Waterson/Carthy family have a history of including songs on their albums performed by other members who aren’t the credited artist (for example “Red Wine Promises” on Bright Phoebus, performed by Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson on an album credited to Lal and Mike Waterson).

And most importantly — it’s Martin Carthy performing “Scarborough Fair”. You don’t need a reason for that. If you have a choice between having Martin Carthy perform “Scarborough Fair” on your album and not having Martin Carthy perform “Scarborough Fair” on your album, you should always choose to have Martin Carthy perform “Scarborough Fair”, even if the album is otherwise hip-hop or modern jazz or something.

“Nelly Was A Lady” is another song about death by the waterside — in this case a Stephen Foster ballad. Thankfully, Eliza Carthy, on lead vocals in the verses (the choruses are a massed vocal) makes no attempt to reproduce any of Foster’s attempts at black dialect (with the exception of singing “Virginny” for Virginia), so “Down on de Mississippi floating/Long time I trabble on de way/All night de cottonwood a toting/Sing for my true lub all de day” becomes “Down on the Mississippi floating/Long have I traveled on the way/All night the cottonwood a toting/Sing for my true love all the day”. In this arrangement, the similarity to many traditional American folk songs, such as “Barbara Allen” or “Down in the Willow Garden” is heightened.

And the album proper ends with a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, sung by a full chorus over a swing-time guitar, singing *every* verse of the song, not just the one that most kids know.

There are also two download-only bonus tracks. “The Wild Colonial Boy” is a traditional Irish-Australian folk song, sung by Waterson. Musically, it fits in perfectly with the rest of the album, but it’s easy to see why it was made into a bonus track — it doesn’t fit thematically with the themes in the album proper, instead being a crime ballad about a “wild colonial boy” who’s shot down by troopers after refusing to surrender.

“We Have an Anchor”, on the other hand, would have fit perfectly into the album, and indeed appears to be the song that gave the album its name — it’s an old Anglican sailor’s hymn, and here it’s sung in massed voices to the accompaniment of a church organ. It’s quite hard to understand why this one was relegated to bonus track status, but of course that doesn’t really matter when listening to it as a download. I’d be a little miffed if I’d spent the extra money on a physical copy and *not* had the bonus, though.

No matter, though. No matter what version of the album you get, the first eleven tracks are stunning. I don’t know if this is the best work the people involved have done — these are, after all, people who between them were involved in albums like For Pence and Spicy Ale, Bright Phoebus, and the Imagined Village albums — and who knows how it will seem when it’s had a chance to sink in? But after a few listens on the day of release, comparing it to those albums is not ridiculous, which given how good those records are is something of a miracle.

If you like music inspired by the folk tradition at all, seek this one out.

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2 Responses to Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy: Anchor

  1. Egad, “We have an anchor” was the unofficial anthem of the Boys Brigade (methodist Boy Scouts). Haven’t heard the CD yet.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I can’t imagine anyone who likes the Waterson/Carthy clan *not* liking it.

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