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Concluding this week is a series of documentaries
exploring the musical influences of four of the most
successful artists in contemporary English folk
music. The programmes are part of Five Culture,
an initiative between Five and Arts Council
England, which was devised to encourage people
to participate in the arts. Using exclusive footage
and interviews, this week’s film focuses on Eliza
Carthy, a singer-songwriter who is bringing
traditional music to a new audience.
For many, Eliza Carthy is at the forefront of a
revival of English folk music. Part of a legendary
musical dynasty, she has been touring since she
was a teenager and regularly mixes musical
genres as disparate as music hall, tango and even
drum and bass. Her willingness to experiment
with various styles has allowed her music to reach
a new generation of fans, and has earned her two
nominations for the coveted Mercury Music prize.
Eliza’s mother, Norma Waterston – herself a pioneering folk singer – believes that her daughter’s eclectic approach to folk is essential to the survival of the tradition. “Each generation has its own
influences,” she says. “You can do whatever you want with [the music] – it is very forgiving.” Music journalist Colin Irwin, meanwhile, thinks that Eliza’s interpretation of traditional music is something of a natural progression. “Are they pop songs or are they folk songs?” he asks. “I think she would tell you they are part of the same thing.”
Despite her broad influences, most of Eliza’s work is rooted in the tradition of English folk music.
But for her, ensuring the survival of this genre is not a passive process. To keep up with a sense of Englishness that is multi-faceted and constantly changing, Eliza is eager that her music must also evolve. Television shows like ‘The X-Factor’ and the singing of Christmas carols in a Sheffield pub are, she explains, all part of English music.
“I think she has great respect for the tradition,” says Colin Irwin of Eliza’s attitude to folk, “but also a healthy disrespect too.” Such a disrespect led to the release of her 1998 album ‘Red Rice’, a record that mixed folk songs with sampled beats and drum-and-bass rhythms. At the time, many members of the folk establishment were outraged, but Eliza insists that the album was not a case of shoehorning her music into a modern style in an attempt to achieve mass appeal – rather it was the product of a wide range of musical influences.
Musician Billy Bragg thinks that Eliza’s ability to take old songs and change them is part of her allure. When she covered one of his lesser-known songs, ‘King James Version’, Bragg feels that Eliza added something extra to his work. “She picked it up and took it to another place,” he says.
Such reversioning of English songs, even if not particularly old, is an essential part of the folk tradition of storytelling. “To take something that everyone is familiar with and to give it another depth, another powerful sensibility – I think that’s her great strength,” says Bragg.
Eliza was brought up near Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire – a place she still calls home and returns to whenever possible. Her early life was dominated by music, with her mother a singer and her father, Martin, a figurehead of the English folk scene. It is clear where her love of music came from, but her unquestionable talent on the violin is something for which she can take full credit. Martin remembers watching his daughter develop as a musician and recalls with great fondness a particular performance of ‘Maid Lamenting’, a traditional folk song. “It was an astonishing piece of playing and singing,” he says. “She is an extraordinary musician and she has a way of going straight to the heart of something.” Eliza’s new album, ‘Dreams of Breathing Underwater’, is due for release later this year, and she will soon be embarking on another busy tour.
But reaching an audience is only part of Eliza’s love of music. “You get the feeling that she would do whatever she does whether there were an audience or not,” says comedian and fan Stewart Lee. “She feels driven to create.”

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