Martin and Eliza Carthy, Yeovil Octagon

ONE Carthy is always going to be a delight, an evening of virtuoso musicianship and erudition worn lightly, with a satisfying mix of traditional and new folk music. Two Carthys is double the delight and then some.

Martin and Eliza Carthy have been sharing stages across Britain for decades, often with Martin’s wife and Eliza’s mother, the matchless Norma Waterson, and with other folk luminaries from north, south, east and west.

For this opening of  Yeovil’s Octagon Theatre autumn programme, promoted jointly with the area’s leading folk venue, the David Hall at South Petherton, father and daughter were in relaxed and contemplative mood, full of laughter and determined to take the audience on an entertaining ride, from Cumbria to the American Deep South, via Hull, Co Durham and the English West Country.

Although the Carthy/Waterson dynasty is most associated with the north east, this set was full of songs from across England, including the poignant Nancy of London, a song from the tradition of West Countrymen who sailed to Newfoundland to fish for cod on the Grand Banks. It was collected from Joseph Elliot by the Hammond brothers, who criss-crossed Dorset on song-gathering expeditions, much as Cecil Sharp did in Somerset.

Another West Country song is Queen Caraboo, a version of the true story of a young woman who washed up in the Avon at Bristol and passed herself off as an exotic foreigner, being acclaimed as either a princess or a queen. Her story is told in an exhibit and a painting at Bristol’s art gallery and museum.

Many of the songs were from Martin and Eliza’s debut album as a duo, The Moral of the Elephant. They included Blackwell Merry Night, by Robert Anderson, an 18th century poet and songwriter who was known as the Robbie Burns of Cumbria.

Also from this collection came Her Servant Man, Happiness, written by Nick Drake’s mother Molly, Waking Dreams, Grand Conversation on Napoleon (a reflection on how the defeat of Napoleon was a disappointment for the starving poverty-stricken ordinary people of these islands), and The Elephant, the marvellous, exotic story of six blind men and an elephant.

Scottish writer Michael Marra’s Monkey Hair is a mysterious lament of a woman who wants no more children – Eliza explained that this is because all her sons have been sent off to war and death.

Another song from this album, again redolent of the poverty and unrest of the early 19th century is Bonny Moor Hen, not a song about a little black waterbird, but the black grouse that was often the only food available to the starving lead miners of the north east. This is a ballad of conflict, in which (for once) the poor defeat the forces of the rich.

The musical journey crossed unexpectedly to the great Mississippi and the sad story of Nelly Was A Lady, by the prolific Stephen Foster, who died at the early age of 37 but whose 200-plus songs include Oh! Susanna, Hard Times Come Again No More, Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Beautiful Dreamer.

It was thrilling to hear Eliza and Martin sing Died For Love, by Mike Waterson, Norma’s late brother, and a rousing ballad learned from Mike of a legendary boxing match that was said to have gone for nearly 90 rounds – Bendigo, Champion of England..

This was one of three visits that these two great folk stars are making to Somerset this autumn – Martin will be back at the David Hall on 21st October and Eliza will be rocking Westlands with her Wayward Band on 5th December. You want to book for both dates if you can!


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