The Watersons - Mighty River Of Song
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The Watersons
Mighty River Of Song
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cd cover Anybody who's anybody seems to be getting the accolade of a boxed set these days, and in terms of their importance to English folk song the Watersons certainly merit the honour as much as anybody. I will never forget the first time I listened to For Pence And Spicy Ale, the transfixing thrill as needle descended onto spinning plastic and "Country Life" burst joyfully forth from the speakers. My first experience of the family singing live, at Whitby Folk Festival in the late 70s, is a memory just as vivid.

No other group sounded like the Watersons. They were the first Folk Revival performers to sing in harmony, but drew little influence from the obvious traditional precedent of the Copper Family, who formed the template for the Young Tradition and a myriad subsequent imitators. The Watersons stand alone. Listening to the recordings on these CDs with fresh ears, it is easy to see why no-one was able to copy them successfully. The harmony is unconventional, occasionally downright bizarre, and in many places simply non-existent. On their earlier recordings, when John Harrison was the fourth member, whole passages are sung in unison before Mike takes off on some weird and wonderful tangent, or Lal and Norma peel away from one another for the last few notes of a verse. There are times when they shun harmony lines that are just begging to be sung, in a way that seems almost perverse: on "Three Score And Ten," for instance, they build up to a glorious harmonic climax halfway through the chorus, then return to the most austere unison just when you're expecting them to take it further. Their harmony - as the detailed analysis in the thick accompanying booklet points out at length - was always instinctive, and didn't follow conventional patterns.

Granted that both the Young Tradition and Swan Arcade (and, more recently, Coope, Boyes and Simpson) achieved far more complex harmonization with three voices than the Watersons did with four, why is it that the family's work still sets the gold standard for folk harmony singing? The answer lies as much in the individual voices as the ensemble. Norma's subsequent development as an awesome solo singer of traditional and more eclectic material will be known to most followers of English folksong. Mike, however, is rarely heard on the big stages these days, so younger listeners may be unaware of his astonishing vocal style. With its dark, earthy timbre, whoops, slides, extraneous consonants, and enormous range (including sporadic falsetto), not to mention a thick East Yorkshire accent, Mike's voice is quite the equal of any Fred Jordan in terms of idiosyncracy. Indeed what strikes me, listening to him here, is that I've never heard another "revival" singer that sounds so like a proper traditional one, one of the "old boys" from out in the sticks, who kept the songs alive through love and bloody-mindedness. There's a scene from the 1966 film "Travelling For A Living" (DVD included in this package), in which the family are seen listening to field recordings - of Beckett Whitehead, if I'm not mistaken - in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. The Watersons, you see, went to some trouble to absorb the sound of traditional singers and, coming both from traveller stock and a working-class community in which singing for social pleasure was still practiced (shown in an amazingly bacchanalian pub scene in the film), they were more empathetic than most towards their sources. To Mike and Norma's distinctive voices was added that of their late and sadly missed sister Lal, less flamboyant individually but a singer with a dark tone of her own that in close unison with Norma set up an edgy, cutting sound, and one who could also pull off on occasion the most spine-tingling dissonances. A lot of their material was seasonal or unashamedly bucolic, yet they could impart grandeur and mysterious depth to a lyric that might look insipid on paper. Their pitching was never clinically precise, but in its ragged edges carried a wildness that was truly exciting.

The four CDs here trace the family's musical history chronologically. Disc one is devoted mostly to the Harrison period during which their first three Topic LPs appeared, with a couple of rough and ready early live recordings in which they are still finding their voice. It also sees Lal beginning to write her own, strangely beautiful songs, some of which would surface later on Bright Phoebus. Her home recording of "The Bird," new to my ears, is bleak, disturbing and utterly stunning, and one of the best things in the box. Disc two sees the arrival of Martin Carthy to add more fluent and inventive bass parts, during that time in the 70s when the Watersons were arguably at their peak. Also included are tracks from contemporary albums by Lal/Norma and Mike respectively, the latter contributing a towering "Tam Lyn." Disc three takes us into the 80s, the family still going strong with some of the younger generation beginning to appear, and collaborations with Peter Bellamy and Swan Arcade. By the time we get to disc four, things are beginning to fragment, with Lal's increasing distaste for live performance seeing Jill Pidd or Mike's daughter Rachel stepping up, and a simultaneous increase in family side-projects. Eliza is maturing rapidly, Waterson-Carthy takes flight (I think we all know about them), Mike is doing some pleasantly eccentric solo work, the mega-harmonies of Blue Murder are (in my opinion) never quite gelling, and Lal is writing more good songs with her son Oliver. Olly's own solo album provides the last track, a musically incongruous but nonetheless delightful piece of dreamy, sequenced pop, sung beautifully by former "Waterdaughter" Maria Gilhooley.

Collections like this usually fulfill one of two functions. Either they try to present a comprehensive overview of the artists' best work, or they unearth rare gems from the archives - if you're lucky, both. Mighty River Of Song certainly contains its share of unreleased tracks that any aficionado of the group will want to own. The 1974 recordings from Loughton Folk Club (curiously lacking either audience applause or chorus singing) are excellent, and include versions of "Pace Egg" and "Souling Song" different from the ones we're used to. Also welcome are the later takes on "Khaki And The Blue," "Gower Wassail" and "White Cockade," showing how songs well-known from the early recordings evolved over the years into new and more exciting arrangements. Some of the unreleased material, however, is of lesser quality, while at the same time there is an awful lot of stuff that a diehard fan will already have on CD, with over 50% of disc one already available and nearly as much of disc two. Why include two tracks from Sound, Sound Your Instruments Of Joy that have already been added to the CD release of Frost And Fire, when David's "Lamentation," a grand piece boasting one of Lal's most spectacularly bone-crunching discords, isn't on CD anywhere? And why, above all, do the selections from For Pence... omit "Country Life" and both "Apple Tree" and "Malpas Wassail," all three of which should surely be in any "Best Of...." compilation?

In a way, then, Mighty River Of Song falls between two stools. A new listener would be better served by a single CD of gold-plated highlights (or maybe just by buying For Pence...); a Waterson anorak might prefer just the obscurities. There is a great deal of exceptional music in this box, but you might want to consider how much of it you really need for your collection before forking out forty-five pounds. - Brian Peters

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