Paul Morley Showing Off ... Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy

Paul Morley introduces a legendary folk family and wonders how the music they lived off and through has changed over time

The transporting, independent and grandly hospitable Waterson Carthy family, ten of them - parents, cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, in laws - ranging in ages from 20ish to 70ish, line up across the Royal Festival Hall, singing funny, exotic, sad, desolate, shrewd, ironic, cheery, stern, sacred, grimly humorous and revolutionary songs from all over the place – historically and geographically – to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their label, Topic. If the songs are old, proud, cracked traditional tunes dragged through time by those that cannot bear losing this real and breathing link to the past - songs as a way of crossing time using the imagination as power - then they sound new, as if they exist for the very first time whenever they are sung. If the songs are new, they have the quality of having been around for a long time, carrying with them this feeling that they would make as much sense to people listening to them hundreds of years ago as they do now. This does not mean their meaning is limited, or that they lack sophistication, or that they are basic and unexciting. In fact, the opposite – this is spiritual music performed by precious, intelligent witnesses that can communicate directly with anyone anywhere regardless of time, place, background the perils and torments and delights of being alive, and thinking, and singing, about being alive, and the good, and bad, luck, that you can encounter along the way.

Old or new, from their own catalogue or deeply traditional, each song, a romantic renewal, a passionate affair, a tireless reflection of wisdom, a fantasy rooted in reality, home made, supernatural, a wounded feeling, a struggle against fate, sung with the kind of fervent, unfancy family harmonies that induce a hallucinatory effect ,exist as a pure piece of memory, a flash of consciousness.

You can see why this music is called 'folk'. Fingers occasionally do get stuck into ears. The spittle covered harmonies can spin off into the emphatically pre-urban. Songs can seem sung purely for the listening pleasure of the full moon. It's a long way from spinning aggrandising commercial channels and the hysterical whims of fashion, and they are such noble representatives of a great, purist folk label, but it's folk like a great, searching, borrowing, knowledgeable Dylan song; folk like the strange, vital space that forms and reforms around Nick Drake's voice and John Fahey's guitar; folk that blasts through dogma and mediocrity; folk that binds together sensational reflections; folk that catches onto the resourceful energy that exists beyond, over the top, around the back of the slender, dazzling distractions of mainstream entertainment. You can see how the word 'folk' is used to wrap up this rapturously unadorned music in vinegar and brown paper and push it right to the back of the shelves, as though it is somehow a rude, unwelcome intrusion, a spoiling of the party, as opposed to an ebullient, poetic and very necessary sign of intelligent life.

A few minutes before the show, I chat with Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy. They bring with them such combined and separate history – Martin as the 1950s skiffle and blues fan who found brand new flinty, sensual, Anglo-dramatic ways to use the plain old acoustic guitar, Norma as a member of the enchanting mystery singers The Watersons, Eliza as the daughter who has inherited and redistributed their deep engaging sense of things, their delightful, delighted sense of fun, and their militant ambitions – that it's difficult to know where to begin. In the end, we can just scratch the surface of their collective contribution to musical history, and moan a little about the state of things, without letting it get us down, because no one ever said it was going to be easy, and have a laugh at the state of things, because as bad as it is, it could be worse. Norma had come into the interview room carrying granddaughter Florence, Eliza's daughter, born on Christmas Eve last year. As we're talking Eliza notices a stain on Norma's top. It turns out to be Mars bar – Norma had given Florence a bit of one. Eliza is horrified. Norma shrugs it off. Then they go out and sing together for all they're worth because it's a pleasure, and it's serious, and it's what they do for a living.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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