A question commonly asked of contemporary musicians is whether or not they come from ‘a musical family’, or grew up in ‘a musical household’. Though it often reveals new and interesting information, it’s a somewhat redundant line of enquiry for folk extraordinaire Eliza Carthy MBE, whose parents are both famed recipients of the BBC Radio 2 folk awards’ lifetime achievement award and whose extended family represents one of the most revered ménages in British folk music. For anybody unfamiliar with Eliza’s heritage and the projects that have brought her widespread acclaim, here’s a little introduction to her folk family tree and the incredible music that both originates from and surrounds her…
Norma Waterson & Martin Carthy
First things first, an introduction to Eliza’s aforementioned ma and pa; vocalists and songwriters both, Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. Norma Waterson’s musical career began with family band The Watersons, which featured her and siblings Mike and Lal as well as cousin John Harrison. Originating from Hull and having followed briefly the skiffle style popular in the previous decade, they released their debut album Frost and Fire in 1965. It was a collection of songs performed unaccompanied, bar the beating of a drum on Hal-An-Tow, and saw their beautiful harmonies, clever phrasing and countermelodies set to wondrous and beguiling folk songs, which won them Melody Maker’s coveted album of the year award.
It represented the beginning of a long and productive career for Norma, who married Martin Carthy in 1972, a decade after their first meeting and involved him in the then reformed Watersons line-up.
Like The Watersons, Carthy had released his debut album in 1965, an enduring collection of traditional songs with Dave Swarbrick’s distinctive fiddling accompanying. He followed that with several more before joining folk-rock group Steeleye Span. Since marrying Norma, he has worked continuously with members of The Waterson family and as Eliza told the Yorkshire Post in a 2012 interview, allowed her to join him on stage from a young age, before performing officially for the first time as a fifteen year old. When Eliza began recording, it was with the support of both her parents, with whom she recorded the debut Waterson:Carthy album, in 1994.
Lal & Mike Waterson
Aunt and uncle to Eliza, Lal and Mike recorded their first and only collaborative record, the lauded ‘folk-noir’ album Bright Phoebus, during The Watersons’ brief ‘68-72 hiatus. It was eventually released in 1972 and won a legion of 21st century fans, who adored its quirkier qualities, contrasting to the traditional elements of The Watersons’ work. Both Mike and Lal remained active musicians until their respective deaths in 1998 and 2011, appearing in the awe-inspiring country and folk big band Blue Murder and recording solo material, with Lal’s songs becoming cover material for a wealth of brilliant folk artists.
Oliver Knight & Marry Waterson
Eliza’s cousins Oliver Knight and Marry Waterson, children to Lal and George Knight, too have fascinating musical stories. Knight worked with his mother on two studio albums, the second a posthumous release, during the 1990’s, before coordinating A Tribute to Lal Waterson for BBC’s Electric Proms with James Yorkston in 2007. Shortly thereafter, he and Marry worked together on Marry’s albums The Days That Shaped Me (2011) and Hidden (2012), recordings upon which Marry’s ‘plaintive and quietly powerful’ vocals are praised. Prior to releasing the pair of solo albums, Waterson had formed an occasional singing partnership with mother Lal, aunt Norma and Eliza, which took the name The Waterdaughters, echoing the strong musical connections felt throughout the family.
There are indeed more musicians to speak of, each contributing to ‘Waterson-Knight-Carthy family musical dynasty’, but one crucial note is that Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band, while well versed in her early work and more than capable of performing works from the Waterson/Carthy history, does not contain any other family members. It is Eliza’s vehicle for exploring her own musical path, one which speeds ahead as it pushes folk music toward contemporary jazz, classical and rock regions, reflecting the wealth of wonderful music in the world and crucially retaining the genuine and modest traits of traditional British folk.
Please note: Richard Hawley isn’t part of the family or the show.