The Watersons / Waterson:Carthy – An introduction to
Topic Records – 30 March 2018
To listen to any retrospective of a major artist or band is to take a journey, not simply through their back catalogue but also through the waxings and wanings of musical fashion. Artistically and commercially canny, it’s a rare major act who doesn’t dip a toe into the prevailing moods of the passing times – whether that be The Rolling Stones detouring into disco-funk (Miss You) or David Bowie taking on drum and bass (You Little Wonder) – sometimes losing what made them significant along the way.
Listening to Topic Records latest addition to their ongoing series, then, it is immediately apparent how firmly those involved in ‘An Introduction to The Watersons and Waterson:Carthy’ cleaved to their original intentions. Beautifully presented by Topic Records, this 15-song overview takes in forty years of music from Three Score and Ten, recorded for the group’s 1964 Topic sampler ‘New Voices’ through to Waterson:Carthy’s 2006 recording of Jacobstowe Wassail. Although the odd sonic nod to the changing times is apparent – the multi-tracking of Fare Thee Well, Cold Winter hint at the increasing studio technology available – what’s offered here is a collective musical vision of exhilarating purity, beauty, and power.
The opening quartet of Three Score and Ten, Pace-Egging Song, Country Life and The Good Old Way present a reminder of the sheer impact that unaccompanied voices are capable of achieving. From the sobering tale of maritime loss of Three Score and Ten to the descanting beauty of The Good Old Way, there is an immediacy that more intricate instrumentation would do well to take note of – the effect of plain, unadorned, direct speech, if you will, delivered without frippery or distraction.
The musicianship is top-notch throughout. Much has been written on the almost telepathic empathy of musical families – familial proximity making it easier to reach the 10,000 hours target than groups rehearsing once a week, perhaps. Nevertheless, what’s in these tracks rivals and at times exceeds the musical communions achieved by any other extended family active in any genre.
A stunning example of this is Once in a Blue Moon. Written by Lal (Elaine) Waterson, it is a gorgeous slice of uplifting melancholy whose sympathetic playing and delivery borders on the supernatural. The sobbing harmonica throughout is close to a second voice, while When I First Came to Caledonia is similarly wondrous. Others will find other tracks that will hit home for them as there are gems throughout.
I am always deeply wary of any claims that are made for musical authenticity in any genre. All art is, after all, artificial. The clue is in the title. I’m equally wary of anything that claims to represent a tradition. As Hobsbawm noted, traditions are essentially invented and constantly changing. It doesn’t make them any less genuine, however, which means we should leave aside irreconcilable debates about where genuine traditions might end and invented ones might begin, especially given the impossibility in the context of the above point about art, of separating either.
Voicing this opinion in these pages might be leaving me wide open for a critical kicking. The whole point about Folk, Roots, and Traditional Music is that at its very best its best practitioners present an ‘authentic’ experience or represent an ‘authentic’ voice, after all. To question the nature of tradition in a review of Waterson Carthy is to invite being shot after the kicking has been administered. After all, if they believed in the monarchy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe them as folk royalty (as much as right royal folk).
But to shoot the messenger is to miss the point. These ideas lead to questions concerning the motivations and intents involved in any act of creation – and so back to the point that opened this review. In the boss-eyed magpie milieu that is music where you can literally hang anything you like next to anything else you fancy on any given day (although most practitioners don’t) this is what really matters. I’m not talking about the faux ‘we really mean it, man’ attitude struck by skinny indie kids and rock dudes, but about the music that actually comes because you can’t stop it coming; the music that pours out of people and places because of their deep, mutual abiding connection; music that is performed by those who have a deep, unyielding commitment to those things that transcends fads and trends.
This music is present in spades on an ‘An Introduction to The Watersons and Waterson:Carthy’, and its delivery over the last four decades stands in testament to this idea. It is by turns powerful, thrilling, moving, emotive, and educational – all things that folk music has been said to be throughout its many iterations. While I have my doubts as to whether this will serve as an introduction to any but those already initiated (although I sincerely hope it does) it is a superb and timely retrospective of a vital shaping force in contemporary British folk.
Out on 30 March via Topic Records. Pre-Order via Proper Music