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World Music Features

Eliza Carthy

English Folk Gets Cool Again

By Chris Nickson
Published May 5, 2006

A strange thing happened to English traditional music about a decade ago. People began to look at it anew, reassessing and reevaluating it for signs of life and possibilities.

A strange thing happened to English traditional music about a decade ago. People began to look at it anew, reassessing and reevaluating it for signs of life and possibilities. That had happened before: there was the folk revival of the 1950s, under the auspices of Ewan MacColl (ironically, a Scot) and, later, as the ’60s turned into the ’70s, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span electrified the music.

            Of course, the music had never gone away. Since Cecil Sharp and others had begun collecting tunes and songs at the end of the 19th century, as rural England became more a memory than an idyll, new voices and players had taken up the mantle. Even the moribund ’80s had seen a breath of interest, as new bands, informed by punk, looked around them—consider the Oysterband, for example, who started out playing the dances known as ceilidhs, and have turned into an institution that’s lasted over 25 years.

            By the mid-’90s, however, the revolution of folk-rock had become a tired cliché, and the ways forward not as apparent. Then Martin Carthy, arguably the best-known contemporary figure in English folk, and its most articulate champion, his wife Norma Waterson of the Watersons, and their daughter Eliza Carthy released the first album under the name Waterson: Carthy.

Suddenly, people couldn’t say enough about English music (and not all the music was English). Somehow they’d managed to shift the floodgates, and very quickly the water began to flow. Eliza has gone on to deliver a stunning series of albums, mostly acoustic. Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell has revitalized her border tradition. Kate Rusby has made old songs into intimate, modern gems, and Jim Moray has proved that imagination can reinvent the past. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg, far from the whole story.

            It was Eliza Carthy who originally prodded her parents in an English direction. While, she recalls, “They weren’t necessarily interested in expressing purely English culture, I really got into it, and enthused them with English music, and was very vocal in the press about it.”

            And Carthy has kept a fierce interest in English music, as the title of her last album, Anglicana, indicates. She’s experimented with modern sounds, and also written and recorded her own material, but the pull of the acoustic tradition keeps drawing her back, and as both a singer and fiddler, she’s brought her youth, energy and insight to it.

            Like Carthy, Kate Rusby grew up with folk music, being taken to festivals by her parents. And so, “When I was 16, I already knew loads of songs that I’d never actually sat down and learned. My guitar teacher taught me three guitar chords when I was 15 or 16, and I used to sit and put them to any song I could. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I was older, and I never thought about the musi