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Song Cycle

Feature

Eliza Carthy belongs to a musical dynasty stretching back several generations. She reflects on her dialogue with her predecessors, and the desire to pass on their legacy.

For me, time represents not just the music I play, which is passed down over time, but also the music of my family. Time brings about the people’s curation of traditional music.

The music we have is the starting point, not the end point; we are not trying to parody a milkmaid’s life, not pretending we know exactly how a song would have sounded 200 years ago. It’s important for me to express traditional music in a very modern way, in a way that’s not forced, but that comes from my community. We play all sorts of instruments, listen to the radio, so we bring our own soundworld into this. It’s important to allow traditional music to breathe, to live and thrive in our time.

Music has always been a part of our family and my life, for as long as I can remember. My father, Martin, comes from seven generations of musicians, as far as we can tell. My mother’s family, the Watersons, were all very musical; her grandmother was a traveller, who loved traditional music and soppy music-hall songs. My earliest memory is my father singing ‘Dolli-ah’ to me when I was a baby, a Newcastle song. He used to put his mouth right next to my ear. The first time I joined my parents on stage I was six years old. Children don’t ask questions, not about the fundamentals, and the fundamentals in my life were always musical.

Music is not the past for me, it’s always been current, and it’s cyclical. My parents have long had a refreshing idea of what you can do with traditional music, they were never prescriptive. My mother’s band, The Watersons, were considered different and new in their time. My father was one of the first to play traditional music with electric guitar. I literally went into the family business, which was applying pioneering techniques to the art form.

‘Time brings about the people’s curation of traditional music.’

I don’t think there’s any tension between my individuality and the tradition, though there could be for my audience. I rarely stand still, I keep trying new things, and if someone loves one of my albums with strings, they might not like the one with banjo and bass drum. I record things, I sing them for a certain length of time, and then I move on… I see music as a continuous stream.

I feel that in the words of traditional songs our ancestors are speaking to us, telling us their stories. Every generation loses bits of a song, but the essential thing gets kept, the humanity, the message. So if you want to know directly how an ordinary person on the street felt about something 150 years ago, you can get that from a song – that is the voice of the past speaking to you, and that message has been maintained for a reason: because it was important.

What makes a song future-proof is its authentic message, the kernel of truth. Traditional songs are like fairy stories that speak directly of life. They were the way for people to pass on knowledge: drinking is great, murder is wrong, don’t run out on your girlfriend, essential truths. I’m interested in old forms, certain old rhythms that people don’t use any more. Sometimes in the traditional music of other countries I can identify those old rhythms we’ve lost and they’ve kept; I like to hear musical history in action.

I’ve no idea how many hours of music are in my head, but sometimes when I’ve had a few weeks off, I’ll get back on stage and do a two-hour show and think, ‘where did all that come from?’ Or I’ll meet an old friend and we get together and all this music just comes out… it must be in the bottom drawer of the bottom drawer in the basement of my brain, possibly buried under something with a freezer on top of it!

In the English tradition there’s a certain amount of music that was lost through hugely traumatic events like the First World War which stripped us of many of our tradition carriers. I like to go back into the old collections to pull out things that people have forgotten and that they might love again. I recognise when young singers have learnt them from me, as I’ve left little pieces of myself in the song. When I hear a 16-year-old singing ‘Made on the Shore’ I know they will be doing that when I’m gone, and that makes me very happy, and part of the natural process.

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