This is an essential document.
Chris Jones 2004
It's an unfortunate, if amusing, coincidence that Topic saw fit to entitle this set Mighty River Of Song just as Christopher Guest and co. release their folk revival spoof A Mighty Wind in the cinemas. Of course the film looks at the American side of the 60s folk phenomenon, but it would be very easy to regard the English legacy of the Watersons as something that seems just as worthy, naïve, anachronistic and easy to mock; especially when you gaze at the booklet's various grainy shots of intense young people in dowdy clothes with their fingers firmly stuck in their ears, gathered around a single microphone in some back room of a pub. You'd be entirely wrong. Not for nothing were these siblings dubbed the 'Folk Beatles'. They were a modernising force in traditional folk, making it relevant to a younger generation and their legacy, while rooted in tradition and archival research, almost single-handedly opened the door for the healthy genre-defying scene we know and love today.
Maybe the best way for a novice to approach this material is via the excellent aforementioned booklet. Written by Ken Hunt, its erudite combination of history and chronological interviews will have you transfixed by the group's story before you've even heard a note. Appropriately for a family committed to telling lost generations' tales of legend and working class life, Mike, Lal and Norma's own history makes compelling reading. Orphaned at an early age and raised by their grandmother, the children were born of Irish and Gipsy blood, steeped in folklore and fiercely loyal to each other. Their first forays into music, like many of their generation was via trad jazz and skiffle, but by the early sixties they'd teamed up with friend John Harrison and established their own Hull-based venue, the Blue Bell. It was here, and around the nascent folk scene that they honed what made them stand out from the crowd: their approach to harmony and singing.
Much is made of their singing in the Mixolydian mode. To the uninitiated this means their voices blend and merge with no fixed parts. Unlike earlier famous singingrelatives such as the Copper Family they allowed the melody to almost randomly shift from brother to sister and back again. One is left with a sense of an almost telepathic ability to weave in and out of a song, breathing new life into it, with only Mike's distinctive yelps adding a punctuation to the verses. To the modern ear these now sound as though they spring directly from the source, but in the mid-60s it was a revolutionary sound.
Four discs contain a superb selection of live and studio cuts taking in the forty plus year story and almost all permutations of the line up. Life on the road was never glamorous or financially rewarding - the excellent 1967 documentary Touring For A Living which accompanies the set on DVD was referred to, half-jokingly as Grovelling For A Pittance - and by the late 60s Norma was working as a DJ in the Bahamas. Only when Mike and Lal recorded the legendary collection of new songs, Bright Phoebus (here represented by some lovely demos), did the family reconvene, albeit with new members such as various offspring and Norma's new husband, Martin Carthy. From this point we're introduced to Blue Murder, the Waterdaughters, the mighty Waterson Carthy (featuringEliza) and, most poignantly, Lal's final work with son Oliver.
If the sound of unaccompanied singing about whaling, hunting, pagan ritual, Christian ritual or just plain hard work sounds a little dry to you, just remember that not only did this family make folk rock possible but they were admired by such rock luminaries as Traffic and had a huge effect on English music in the late 20th century. Their ability to make a narrative spring to life and their rugged determination to seek out and protect our heritage remains as relevant and engrossing as ever.This is an essential document.