Waterson:Carthy -- All In The Family

by Jan Vanderhorst

January 2000


If you search long and hard enough you can discover all sorts of long-forgotten, archaic laws still in force today. Imagine for a moment a little-known statute in the "Rules and Regulations of English Folk Music" which states: "In order to join a performing group consisting of family members, one must first marry one of the group's members". Whether or not this regulation is true (it's not), it has to be at least considered when discussing the English quartet Waterson:Carthy. Martin Carthy was already a "star" of the English folk music scene by the time he joined The Waterson's in 1973. But before he joined...

"I went and married one of them you see (Norma)", he says, "Marriage is the only way (to get in). We got married in 1972 and just a year and a bit later, I joined the family (group)."

Their daughter Eliza further reinforced the point.

"That's the only way you can get in the band, as Saul is aware."

Saul, is Saul Rose, the fourth member of Waterson:Carthy, and Norma and Martin's son-in-law, having married their other daughter Lucy. The experience, influence and lineage of the four musicians gives us a quick overview on the progression of the English folk music scene.

Martin Carthy began his career in 1960 as a solo performer and guitarist. Over the next 40 years, he's been a member of the Three City Four, Brass Monkey, Steeleye Span (twice), the Albion Country Band and in a duo with Dave Swarbrick.

In fact, in 1999 he received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from the Queen, in recognition of his, as he puts it, "sheer patience".

Norma Waterson grew up singing with her family "The Waterson's", a well-respected performing group. Specializing in accapella music, the group also included her siblings Michael and Lal.

Eliza of course grew up with folk music all around her, eventually picking up the fiddle, while Saul is a skilled young player of the melodeon. Eliza has released two albums on her own, "Heat, Light & Sound" and "Red Rice". But Eliza and Saul's influences aren't strictly tied to folk music.

"I don't believe a musician can honestly shut off their ears or exclude any contemporary music", Eliza states, "or anything that's (playing) on the radio and the television. I don't think you can consciously do that."

According to Martin Carthy, influences can be a tricky thing to figure out.

"I think if you ask musicians who their influences are, they'll always be tempted to tell you all their favourites" he says, "In fact, they have no idea who has truly influenced them. And there's going to be a lot of people who you really wished you'd never been influenced by, (everyone laughs) but you don't say (who they are)."

"So what I bring to (Waterson:Carthy)", Eliza says, "is a younger pair of ears I suppose. And that does change the music that we make, because there's a big age difference between me and my parents. That's what Saul brings to the group as well. Young blood is bound to be different. It's bound to change what (my parents) do."

"There was a big shift when Saul joined (the group)", says Norma, "With Eliza and Saul being of a (similar) age, they have the same influences. Eliza's playing didn't change so much, but Saul and Eliza playing together have blended so well, that...: "I'm less of a soloist now", Eliza pipes in, "When we started, it was all down to me to play the melodies, so I had a soloist's mentality, which I don't have anymore, because I play with lots of other melody instruments. So my playing has changed since Saul has been in the band, and that hasn't been long at all (since 1997)."

And it's not just Eliza who's seen her playing change with the addition of Saul Rose. A seasoned veteran like Martin has also been affected. "I don't know if (my) approach (to playing) has changed, but it's certainly gotten better because..."

"you practice more", Norma laughs,

"I practice more", Martin agrees, "I have to..."

"to keep up with (Saul's) young fingers", continues Norma.

"It's true", says Martin, "When we started I was being the teacher and then very very soon I was running to catch up. In order to do that, I had to practice an awful lot more that I had ever done before. And that can be nothing but good. It's nice to know that you still have to (work at improving your musical skills)."

As is usually the case with family musical groups, the idea of Norma and Martin performing with Eliza happened by accident.

"My sister (Lal who died of cancer in 1999) decided she didn't want to tour anymore", says Norma, "Martin was offered a tour in the States a few years ago when Eliza was 13."

"We hadn't been performing with Dad", says Eliza, "We had a little group with Mum's sister Lal and her daughter Maria, (called) the Waterdaughters, which we toured the folk clubs with. But we hadn't thought of performing together as a family and I went over on that tour for a holiday. We just put 3 or 4 songs together (to perform on stage). To be honest, we didn't consolidate ourselves and give ourselves a name until we made the album (Waterson:Carthy, released in 1994)."

"It wasn't really until somebody said to us that people liked that little arrangement and started offering (gigs) that we thought of a name even", says Norma.

"It didn't occur to me", Eliza states, "until they offered me money."

The success of the album "Waterson:Carthy" was followed by the addition of Saul Rose to the band, the release of "Common Tongue" and 1999's "Broken Ground".

The make-up of the songs on "Broken Ground" are mainly English folk songs.

"It's not a real pedantic thing", says Norma, "(but) we really do try to stick with the English stuff, because we like the English stuff."

"It's a little under-represented", adds Eliza, "we have been know to cover music all over the Celtic spectrum, but we don't really do that now. There's a lot of people doing that very well and not very many people doing English music at all or very well."

It's somewhat ironic, given today's love affair with traditional Irish and Scottish folk music, that it was in fact in England where the folk revival began in the late 50's and 60's.

"The structure and the idea you could do it professionally happened (in England)", explains Eliza, "it wasn't that nobody was playing in Ireland or Scotland, it's just that they weren't really touring. It was the setting up of the mainly English folk clubs that really made that possible."

To find out more about Waterson:Carthy, their record company's website is: www.topicrecords.co.uk

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at jan@hyperpeople.com