It only takes a few moments of Norma Waterson‘s imposing voice and personality to realize the incestuous relationship that exists between England’s two most important
native musical forms: The folk ballad and the Cockney music-hall standard. It’s a relationship hinted at in the Copper Family’s repertoire – the existence, there, of ancient oral-tradition song, sitting cheerfully next to 19th-century broadside ballads and revamped hymnal oddities. But it’s Norma Waterson, sitting with her packet of tissues – a cold allegedly, though unnoticeably, dampening her incomparably powerful cords – that acts as Exhibit A.
Norma raises her arms and belts out “Bright Shiny Morning,” Chris Parkinson’s accordion creating the tune’s funereal march, and Norma sells the song. Before an adoring audience of over 100 (in a room built for 50), she belts it out as though auditioning for the gig of a lifetime. Norma thinks through each word, contemplates each phrase – each “I surely must die” and each “send for the doctor / although it’s too late.” (You’d know it once you heard it: “Bright Shiny Morning,” she explains, is a West Indian version of a song that runs deep through English and American life: “Streets of Laredo,” “Saint James Infirmary,” etc.)
With clenched eyes and swanning arms, Norma Waterson announces the final, consumptive end, begging for six sailors to carry her coffin; roses to announce her coming; and the demanding coda – “My name is Loretta / But don’t call my name.” Hers is a proud Loretta – Norma is Loretta, giving her the deservedly realized characterization of a vital woman denied her life, and denying her own identity, making herself universal. Maybe that’s the difference between hearing the likes of Norma Waterson, her husband Martin Carthy, and their peerless accompanist Parkinson, and the music of so many other purveyors of the English folk-music idiom. Waterson and Carthy – and through them, their extended family of dozens of musicians (including oh, so many, blood relatives) – learned at the feet of a generation of pub players and caravan crooners for whom there was no separation between traditional music and entertainment.
The queue stretched and twisted around the inside of the Royal Oak pub in Lewes, from the door to the upstairs function room* to the bar and back again. Upstairs, the Royal Oak heaved with what might be called a “standing-room only” crowd – were there still room to stand. Amongst the folkerrati in attendance, the Queen of the South – Sussex legend, and international beacon of weird-folk, Shirley Collins – seated next to one of her direct new-generation descendents, Brighton’s brilliantly frail songstress, Mary Hampton.
Lewes is, of course, the center of Sussex eccentricity. It sits, I will posit, on a convulsion of ley lines: Among too many to name, one that runs from London to Boston, Mass., on which Thom Paine floated into history in the 18th century; one that follows Hilaire Belloc across the Sussex landscape, from pub to pub, venturing in and out of poetry and sobriety; one that traverses the whole of the surface of the earth, in the path of the sun over the planet, from its stage debut each morning as it creeps over Mount Caburn, burning away mist and last night’s spewed Donner.
This is a town that still annually burns the Pope, W., Blair, whomever it is they find fault with that year, in effigy – just like they did 200 years ago. Lewes prints its own currency, and shuts down pubs for daring remove the local ale. It’s a town of a few thousand that supports two distinct and thriving weekly folk-music clubs, using the same eccentric-if-affluent clientele that will throw back a dozen pints at the Thin Lizzy tribute-band gig the following night.
So it comes as no surprise that a trio as internationally renowned as Waterson, Carthy and Parkinson should sell out the Royal Oak Folk Club by 8 p.m. And it shouldn’t have come as such a pleasant surprise to see the breadth and depth of musical knowledge that sold-out crowd should bring as its part in the evening’s entertainment.
The Waterson-Carthy-Parkinson (we’ll call ’em WCP) crew brings with it not just the showmanship of the music hall, but the broad-based repertoire that they saw as part of that “authentic” folk-music milieu. After all, the gypsy singers and pub-session musicians that WCP draws their inspiration from didn’t necessarily distinguish between ancient murder ballad and contemporary broadsheet pop hit; they knew nothing of a song’s Roud number# or its regional variations – just whether or not it was a good song that was fun to sing and enjoyable to listen to. And that extends across borders: In their neo-folk-Vaudeville set, WCP performed songs made known by Jerry Garcia and Ida Cox; tunes from New Orleans and Ohio, Yorkshire and Ireland.
And it’s when Norma Waterson belts out “Black Muddy River” or “Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” that I’m swept off my feet – humbled by the beauty of it and buttressed by pride. Perhaps it’s only when seen in this context, set between the likes of “Bold Doherty” and a traveler’s ballad from Queen Caroline Hughes, that we can recognize the cultural history that America has built in its mere two centuries. We’re so quick to judge the surreal and non-existent concept of “authenticity” in this country, that we sometimes lose sight of what we actually have – that a century from now, “Black Muddy River” will, perhaps, be no less traditional than “Bold Doherty.” That Cajun music may have seen its brief place in the national spotlight come and go – just like pre-war blues or variety-show country – but that such one-time popular success does nothing to muddle its musical power and message. WCP was a beautiful reminder that music means nothing when it is cataloged, numbered, and bowdlerized by academicians. Music retains whatever inexplicable power it holds when it is performed, not as an exhibit, but as a communication – a ritualized discussion between “performer” and “audience.”
At the Royal Oak, there’s little to separate the “artists” from their “fans.” They sat, we sat. They had no microphones or amplification; no cultural convention stopped the many audience members who brought their concertinas and harmonicas from joining in, and singing along was standard. Conversations – about Waterson and Carthy’s newborn grandchild; about the last time Parkinson had visited Lewes – went on as Carthy tuned his guitar or Parkinson drained his pint.
I often wonder about the changes that my own interests in performance have gone through: Less interested in seeing live musicians than in DJ’s; more enthralled by a shambolic-but-quiet folk artist than the once-cathartic chaos of a rock band. But the fact is, it’s not the “live music” that I’ve grown bored by (or grown out of), but rather the rules that govern those performances. Music is, at its heart, social communication; an accompaniment to the social space. Yet that seems to have no place in contemporary performance. The rules that govern rock-band performances – from set times to the kinds of stilted, rhetorical social interaction that occurs in violently loud bar situations – no longer have anything to do with my own life. At the Royal Oak, in a situation that encouraged a fluid conversation between music, audience, and musicians, the reasons why all became apparent.
*Function Room: (n.) A separate facility, often the second floor, within an English pub in which private parties, events, and – traditionally – folk clubs are held. I hold that they retain the name “function room” to try and dissuade activities that are too much fun – were the “room” to maintain a separate name, even so much as “Upstairs at the Royal Oak,” it might imply something more risqué than grayish balloons tied around the backs of chairs and fold-out tables weighed down with sausage rolls and half-empty pints of lager.
#Roud Number: (n.) A number given to systematize and catalog the oral tradition of ballads dispersed amongst the British Isles and their linguistic colonies in America, Australia, etc. As an added bonus, this system gives folk-music academics (and, occasionally, geeks like me) something to talk about at parties while everyone else is getting drunk and having a damn fine time dancing to Hercules And Love Affair.