Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Skeletons in the Closet?: Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy and Even More Rock Family Trees

Wayward Daughter is subtitled An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy. We all know what “official” means. You’re not going to get the dirt. Unless it’s an “as told to” book, or credited to the artist “with” a co-author, it’s just the facts, ma’am. And yet, Wayward Daughter sounds like Sophie Parkes is willing to spill the beans, don’t you think? It sounds, from the title alone, that we’ll hear all about Eliza’s shocking teenaged years, the love affairs, drug abuse, debauchery, and all the rest. Trouble is, Eliza was really not that wayward a child. From the beginning, she simply wanted to go into the family trade. If her parents were plumbers or bakers, doctors, or even audio-visual technicians, you’d think that would make for proud moms and dads! Eliza’s parents, however, are England’s leading folk-guitarist Martin Carthy, and his wife the legendary Norma Waterson. Both Norma and Martin have been on the forefront of the British folk music scene for decades. ‘Twas Martin Carthy whose arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” made Paul Simon famous.

In concert with Mom and Dad, and one-time beau Saul Rose, Eliza is a dervish, playing her fiddle with a joy and verve that was contagious. In 1999, I was lucky to have caught them at the Brantford Folk Club, at the Holiday Inn. Waterson:Carthy they called themselves, and still do when they combine to play together. It was an extraordinary night, made more-so by the fact that, during the break, we tipped a pint with Sam Rose, and after the show everyone stuck around to chat and sign CDs. The chatting was the surprise. Norma spoke of her arthritis, Martin of guitar lore, and Eliza … well, Eliza teased her Dad (during the concert, when Martin backed into a table holding a pitcher of water, Eliza joked about her Dad’s “wet bum” for quite a while), made jokes, and generally charmed us all.

Eliza Carthy (Photo by Dean Leivers)
I wish there was more of that generous personality displayed in Sophie Parkes’ book. Perhaps Parkes thought she was describing it, but her Eliza Carthy comes across more like the stern woman in the book’s cover photo instead of a woman who got her father to create music for her lyrics about giving “blow jobs on couches to men who didn’t want me.” As despairing as the song in question is, “The Company of Men”, there must have been a grin on her face when she presented those words to dear old Dad.

The book comes over a bit heavy. While Parkes did her homework and interviewed almost everyone you might imagine for the book – including Billy Bragg, Van Dyke Parks, Cerys Matthews and many more – the quotes overwhelm the assessment one looks for from a biographer. It is clear that Sophie (a fiddler herself) is a fan of Eliza’s and perhaps too much so. She covers the early years, school days, and the precocious beginnings of a performer well enough, but the book bogs down a bit in the middle when Eliza was trying to establish herself as something more than simply another “folk babe.” It was always about the music. And whatever music she wanted to play was the music she played. Eliza Carthy is a strong-minded person, with powerful ties to the history of English folk music as well as a potent vision of its future.

Perhaps that is the problem I had with the book. While I agree with Carthy’s position, and I believe that her recordings are mainly successful in combining the past with the present as they point to the future, I suppose I was looking for a lighter, more personal look at her life. As I write these sentences I realize that the book forced me to consider the juxtaposition of the olde songs with new ways of playing them, and the marriage of yesterday and today. There is plenty to think about in these thoughtful pages, if only it had been more fun to read. If only I had come away from Wayward Daughter with the same exhilaration that I felt that night in Brantford, or from listening to one of Eliza’s CDs in the car. This one is for fans only, and might serve to scare away anyone who doesn’t already have a relationship with the Waterson/Carthy family elite.

As for books for music fans, there are none better than the paperback collections of Pete Frame’s oversized hand-drawn Rock Family Trees. Sometimes these beautiful, detailed pieces of art show up as posters in special edition box sets (Paul McCartney offered one in his deluxe Flowers in the Dirt set, and one appeared with Free Reed’s The Carthy Chronicles), but they began in the legendary '70’s magazine ZigZag published by their creator Pete Frame. Eliza Carthy appears at the bottom of Frame’s Martin Carthy tree. It was drawn in 2001 and misses out on everything that Eliza has done since then, but you get the idea.

These charts contain a wealth of information. Record releases, studio sessions, touring bands, days when a drummer had tonsillitis and might have been replaced by a stand-in for a few weeks, you name it, and Pete drew it. The books (and there are now four of them) are fantastic. They are 9.5”x13” and staple bound, but with care they’ll last forever. I’ve had volume one since 1979 and it still holds up under scrutiny. The pages fold out and some of the charts are four frames long! That’s three feet of densely packed minutiae about guitarists and bass players, drummers and singers. It’s great!

I mentioned the usefulness one of Frame’s Family Trees would have been if I’d had it while reading (and reviewing here) Gregg Allman’s autobiography, My Cross To Bear, and sure enough the Allman Brothers Band appears in the most recent edition, Even More Rock Family Trees (Omnibus Press, 2011). I ordered it immediately, and since it arrived in yesterday’s mail I haven’t put it down. Well, except to rave about it right here.

The bands covered in Even More include the aforementioned Martin Carthy and Allman Brothers charts, as well as Oasis, Nirvana, Suede, Elton John and Miles Davis. A brief troll through the index shows that other folk make appearances too: Ry Cooder, Long John Baldry, Dire Straits, Dave Edmunds and many, many more. Okay, the plot isn’t up to much, but this book is jam-packed with fascinating characters and information!

If you’d like to check out some of Frame’s Family Trees without investing in a book, you can do so on-line at Frame’s web site. You can even buy individual posters, and art prints, but the books are a treasured resource in my library, and (as my wife will attest) they keep me occupied for hours on end.

Here’s a look at the unfolded Allman Brothers Band tree to give you a taste.

 – David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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