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Martin & Eliza Carthy - The Moral of the Elephant

Martin & Eliza Carthy – The Moral of the Elephant

by on 27 March, 2014

in Features, Interviews

Whilst Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy have featured on albums together under the guise of Waterson:Carthy from as far back as twenty years ago they have never released an album as a duo. Eliza jokes in the interview below “this is the first time we’ve got around to kicking mum out” which brings a chuckle from Martin.

Martin explains their daily recording process for the album which involved “hothousing two songs for 4 hours every day” and then going into the studio from 4pm – 8pm with the aim of recording those two songs. The beauty of this approach as Martin explains is that they did everything live. What’s more, there are no guests, as Eliza says “very few thrills barring whistles, it’s just fiddle and guitar.”

One of the advantages of recording this way (besides fitting around their busy calenders) is touched on by Eliza in the interview when she explains how it allowed a freshness and excitement to pervail which you get when performing a piece for the first time. Something that comes through very strongly on some of the songs:


Died for Love
One song where this comes across is on the traditional song ‘Died for Love‘ which they perform in tribute to the legendary Mike Waterson (17 January 1941 – 22 June 2011) who was Martin’s brother-in-law and Eliza’s uncle. Martin explains that Mike had a “very very special way with a song, he would hothouse it for years sometimes. [He] was fabulously inventive and is my idea of what ‘tradition’ is.

“Mike always messed with songs, people wouldn’t believe he messed with songs in the way he did. He would never let a song alone until he thought he had it just right.”

The song was never recorded by Mike for a album but is one they wish he had. They were sent a live recording by Steve Garden of Mike singing the song at The Bluebell in Hull in the late ’60’s. They learned it virtually verbatim and although they’ve “swithced it around a bit” Eliza states “The Colonel is there.”


Another song of particular interest on the album is ‘Happiness’ which was written by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick Drake which as Martin explains “is a reminder that he came from a songwriting family”. As Eliza so ably demonstrates “it’s a real singer’s song.”


Monkey Hair

Besides ‘Happiness’ the only other non-traditional song on the album is ‘Monkey Hair’ which was written by the man from Lochee, the bard of Dundee, the unique and irreplaceable Michael Marra. Eliza explains that his death has been very profoundly felt in the Scottish music community.

On this particular song she says “in some ways I can’t believe a man wrote that song” in terms of putting yourself in someone else’s position (in this case a woman). Marra wrote the song around the time he was moving towards a very personal style that Eliza and Martin both recognise. He often drew on the books he was reading which for this, as Martin displays a copy, was A Scots Quair by the Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The book is actually a trilogy which focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, a woman from the north east of Scotland during the early 20th century. This song was inspired by Cloud Howe from the trilogy.

The story behind the song is a very strong one which Eliza explains is about the wife of a Scottish minister who decides to cut him off from having any more children “because he keeps sending their children away to war…to be killed.” For anyone wondering the minister does get his comeuppance in the book when he dies in the pulpit delivering a sermon…how apt.

Eliza goes on to explain that war, disagreement, knowledge and ignorance are another sub-theme on the album. The song has “a quiet fury about it” and both Eliza and Martin were clearly moved by the strong personal stance taken against the minister who sends his children away to war to make himself look good. It’s a song Eliza pours her heart into, a song she clearly feels, probably more so as a mother herself.

The Moral of the Elephant is released on Topic Records on 2nd June 2014.


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