Tom Paxton rambles
Rachel Unthank and the Winterset: this year's Mercurial folk

Three cheers for Eliza: great music, guts and words

Eliza Carthy Dreams of Breathing Underwater (Topic)
Seth Lakeman
Poor Man's Heaven (Relentless)

For the past two weeks, I have been listening a lot to the two controversial albums listed above (both pictures courtesy of Roger Liptrot's Folk Images collection) .

Controversial? Yes, in the sense that a good proportion of folkies give a convincing impression of being by nature the most reactionary creatures on earth.

When someone claimed as "one of ours" strays from the straight and narrow path of purity (and, some would cry, poverty), the backlash is biting. No matter what dues the individuals have paid to folk; their duty, for some, is to avoid at all cost the temptation to become popular, or even different.

The guitar riff that introduces Eliza's new CD might have escaped from a Stones record. I can easily imagine a number of fellow folkies foaming at the mouth at such betrayal. By the time they reach the second track, with the opening line "Marianne Faithfull sings a song about a boy....", they will presumably be reaching for sedatives.

And I think it's delicious. I have paid my own dues to a form of purism, expressing the view that Eliza Carthy at her best is, or was, Eliza Carthy singing North Country Maid unaccompanied. But I have found it entirely possible to admire and enjoy the various meandering routes she has taken in music, routes that keep her interested, make it more likely that she can earn a living and add greatly to the sum and substance of modern English music.

Ratcatchers08But rather than rattle on for a few more paragraphs about the merits of the album, let me allow Eliza herself room to articulate - extremely well, despite the late burst of self-deprecation - her own thoughts on the questions that arise. She is talking about Seth Lakeman:

The man is from a folk music-playing family,writes in a modern folk music style, on acoustic instruments, about the area where he is from-why on Earth isn't it folk music? What the hell else is it? Why are some of you people so narrow minded about this? Honestly, why and how do you think to define him out of "your" chosen arena simply because you don't like what he does? What precious, horrible arrogance. And some of you have clearly never heard him, only heard of him, the fact that you have being enough to condemn him! I went to see John Tams and Barry Coope at Glastonbury this year, and they played a set of what I would consider to be soft acoustic pop on synthesiser and guitar. It isn't what I like, really. Some people consider John Tams to be a folk hero, likewise people like Show of Hands, who again, I would say are pop or soft rock singers. But it isn't up to me. As far as they are concerned this is their interpretation of this genre and they place themselves within it because they feel an affinity to it. In a lot of ways they keep the scene and my job going, so fair enough, as far as I care what people wish to do outside of the mainstream is folk music if it isn't traditional. The folk scene should surely be about supporting independence from the mainstream; it so happens that success can spring from that. So do we abandon people the minute that happens? Leave them for cultural dead? To be a folksinger must inevitably mean to be unable to make a living? Why? Some guy on this board the other day said he wouldn't consider what I do most of the time to be English traditional music "in a thousand years". Twenty years, is all I say in response. Fifteen of those specialising in English traditional music, studying, evangelising, practising, in a way that I thought would benefit the scene that raised me. Not to mention the family... I'm not saying that Seth has any sort of ambition beyond making his music and making a living out of it. But he is one of our's, and he is not harming us beyond creating opportunities for us to harm ourselves like doomed stereotypes in forums like this. Like the music or leave it, but you shouldn't confuse personal taste with righteousness of purpose. If you don't like the diversity of the folk scene maybe it is that that isn't for you. Maybe you're not a folkie either. I don't think I am any more. Most folk music on the scene leaves me cold, but I don't presume to dictate what others should be doing any more. Traditional music is something else, will survive, that's what I care about. I'm sorry this isn't written very well. But I find these kind of prejudices infuriating.

Eliza's subject is from a family I have regarded as friends for 35 years (that's the interest duly declared).

Seth Lakeman has just made the mistake of getting an album into the charts and the gutsy quote comes from Eliza's posted comments to one of those debates that crop up at the Mudcat folk chat site whenever a folk musician does something that brings a hint of commercial success. At the last count, there were 290 messages on the thread, from the gushing opener "great news for folk music" via an honest "I could snog his face off!!" to a shedload of he's great/he's crap variations, including this classic putdown:

"Seth Lakeman has sold over 100,000 CDs to people who mostly don't give a toss about "folk music".' "His songs are currently heard by several million listeners tuning in to Radio 2." Multiply the figures by ten (or more) and you could be talking about Kylie! Cor, what a recommendation!

For what it is worth, Salut! Live respects rather than especially likes Poor Man's Heaven. Traces of Seth Lakeman's folk background abound, and there are many snatches of brilliance, in the playing, lyricism and arrangements. I am less keen on his vocal texture, and find some of his work melodically impenetrable.

That said, I have made little secret of my tendency to grow gradually to enjoy music I find, at first, relatively unappealing. Each new hearing already brings fresh rewards, and I fully expect to not only to develop my views on the album but to reflect that development here in due course.

And, as promised in the preceding paragraph, I now report - a couple of months on - that further listening has steered me towards much greater appreciation of the album. I feel more comfortable with the singing and have identified a few gems, among which Solomon Browne, his account of the Penlee lifeboat tragedy (a harrowing event which Seth Lakeman's dad and I both covered as reporters) stands out as a minor masterpiece.

As for the stardom question, I have owned up to past misgivings about folk becoming popular, so should avoid the hypocrisy of criticising too harshly those who now adopt a similarly head-in-the-sand outlook. They may mellow in time as I did. So let Phil Beer of Show of Hands, also quoted from the Mudcat thread, close this modest contribution to the discussion:

In a dumb celebrity culture where non acheivers can become household names and earn obscene sums of money it's refreshing to find a young man who has worked hard and created something worthwhile out of the building blocks of our past music and culture. By making something new out of it, he carries the thing forward. I for one am utterly delighted.



nice topic. perfect review but,
somebody please put somewhere eliza carthy's "two tears"s lyrics.
i couldn t find it anywhere.

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