FEW will dispute that Martin Carthy has been the leading, most influential and possibly even the finest male singer of an English folk revival that took hold during the 1960s and 1970s and has, despite inevitable ups and downs, never fully relinquished that hold. Few will deny that his playing has been virtually the sine qua non of a style of folk-guitar playing that has come to be recognised as quintessentially English.
Similarly, any suggestion that his wife, Norma Waterson, of the magnificent family vocal group The Watersons, is not among a handful of that revival’s leading female singers likely to be met, in the proper circles, with considerable scorn. So, while her parents may have given her a leg up as she went into the family business, Eliza Carthy had an awful lot to live up to.
That she is now justifiably and in her own right considered the leading figure among the next generation of English folk musicians and a premier inspiration for a hugely talented present crop, while ploughing what has been largely her own, boundary-testing furrow, is testimony to how well she has coped with the pressure.
She hasn’t only recorded traditional music. In 2000, for example, she made Angels and Cigarettes, a selection of her own, singer-songwriterly compositions, for Warner Brothers, changing her hair dye from red to blue for the occasion. It was a surprisingly strong record, but not what she’s really good at, so she returned to the familiar bosom of Topic, the world’s oldest independent label, for 2002’s Anglicana, which is, as the title suggests, almost entirely English and traditional.
The only exceptions are an Irish song about London, beautifully rendered as a solo piano ballad, and her own Dr MCMBE, a fiddle and guitar instrumental duet with her father that celebrates, all at once, his 60th birthday, the first of his honorary doctorates in music — from Sheffield University — and the MBE he received for services to folk music, by no means the least of which is having fathered Eliza.
Anglicana’s strength is immediately apparent in the majestic opening track, a carefully considered yet thoroughly rejuvenated version of Worcester City, originally recorded nearly a century earlier by song-collecting classical composer Percy Grainger from Joseph Taylor, a Lincolnshire carpenter already quite advanced in age.
So the recorded source of the song is an old one, as old as traditional English folk music sound-recording sources get, in fact, but the arrangement, which features the incorrigible Bellowhead duo of Jon Boden and John Spiers on fiddle and melodeon and terrific use of Donald Hay’s percussion, while remaining respectful, is clearly from this century.
In addition to being a fabulous singer, Carthy is an outstanding fiddle player. While this skill tends to be restrained here in the service of the simple but often gorgeous arrangements — its interaction with Tim van Eyken’s melodeon on the lovely Just as the Tide Was Flowing is arguably the pick of the bunch — she lets rip on a very English selection of tunes that amply demonstrate the resolutely jovial ruggedness of English country dance, quite different, in both rhythm and feel, from its generally more extroverted Celtic cousins. That one of these tunes is called Three Jolly Sheepskins tells you pretty much all you need to know.
Pretty Ploughboy, sourced from the wonderful singing of Norfolk farmhand Harry Cox, with its refrain of "they sent him to the wars to be slain", is superbly revived, while the slow and stately Bold Privateer shows off Carthy’s exceptional command of the big ballad. By way of contrast, mother Norma joins in for a cheery Little Gypsy Girl and the brass-driven Willow Tree rounds off a just about perfect set by finding a place for old-fashioned nostalgia without sounding in any way dated.