AS THE TWO DECADES SINCE HER FIRST RELEASE HAVE UNFOLDED, IT’S BECOME LESS AND LESS BEFITTING TO DESCRIBE ELIZA CARTHY AS A FOLK ARTIST.
A new 31-track 2-CD celebratory compilation – WAYWARD DAUGHTER (review here) – neatly showcases her range by cherry-picking the best of her discography to date. Idiosyncratic self-penned material and offbeat collaborations co-exist happily alongside nods to her traditional roots, best displayed in recordings with ‘folk royalty’ parents Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.
Author Sophie Parkes’ book – also titled WAYWARD DAUGHTER (and now available for Kindle, here) – is an engaging biography of Eliza Carthy, leading from her early years in Robin Hood’s Bay up to the present day. Much of it is formed from revealing interviews with the musician herself, her parents, family friends and musical collaborators – including Billy Bragg, who would doubtlessly share the sentiments Eliza expresses in this exclusive extract.
Nick Griffin, the chairman of the British National Party and currently serving as Member of the European Parliament for North West England, claimed to be a fan of Kate Rusby, waxing lyrical about her on his blog. And it wasn’t just Kate Rusby the far right seemed to latch on to. Spiers and Boden had a track on a giftshop album, the kind that might be sold as a souvenir at stately homes, entitled A PLACE CALLED ENGLAND which featured Elgar and Vera Lynn, amongst others. The BNP took to selling it on their party website, the same website which used Show Of Hands’ song ROOTS as a soundtrack to some of their online publicity materials.
‘It was such a shock, the whole BNP thing, as I don’t think it had ever occurred to anyone that the folk scene was anything other than left wing. Because we all are!’ Jon Boden shook his head.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, Eliza was keen to disassociate her passion for English culture and identity with any kind of far right sentiment, stating ‘Jon Boden has had to stick a huge anti-BNP sticker on his fiddle, she says, ‘so that every time anybody takes a photograph of him playing, there’s this sticker telling the BNP to fuck off right next to his face.’
A BBC News story claimed that Nick Griffin was hoping to start his own internet radio channel on which he would present a folk music programme. Searchlight, the anti-racism campaign group, stated that the BNP were looking for a ‘political soundtrack’, one which would differentiate the party from the old National Front’s association with the steel toe capped boots of certain rock bands, such as Skrewdriver, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s: ‘The modern BNP no longer has angry white teenagers in big boots. They have people between 35 and 55 years of age. So folk music with its ideas of land, tradition – the BNP are trying to get involved in that.’
The folk scene needed a platform on which to publicly demonstrate that the far right was not welcome, that they had no right to appropriate the playing of English traditional music to support their extremist views.
In August 2009, two months after Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were elected to the European Parliament as MEPs, Folk Against Fascism was launched at Sidmouth Folk Festival. A special concert took place, in which Eliza, John and Jon played alongside a whole host of other folk musicians, and the new alliance spelled out their message: ‘that you can be proud of England’s music, traditions and customs without being a bigot or a racist.’
With only a small administrative team at the core, the campaign is largely grassroots activism: folk fans and musicians are encouraged to speak about the campaign when they can, wear branded t-shirts to gigs and hold FAF-themed events such as sessions and singarounds. Visitors to the website are encouraged to download their own stickers and posters, adding Twibbons to their Twitter profiles and banners to their homepages. The campaign also released its own double album with tracks contributed by some of the biggest players on the folk scene, including Eliza, Kate Rusby, Jon Boden and John McCusker.
Unfortunately, however, the media once again linked the British folk scene with the BNP a year later, forcing Eliza to speak out on the subject.
Guardian journalist Christian Koch sought to ‘reveal which artists fill up the iPods and Spotify playlists of the world’s most evil men.’ Here, in an article the very epitome of no-news-January, Koch emphasized Nick Griffin’s supposed love for traditional English music, stating ‘In particular, Griffin (who penned lyrics for an album of “patriotic” songs entitled WEST WIND in 2007) is a fan of nu-folk poster girls Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby.’
Eliza was outraged: not only had her personal and professional reputation been insulted, but the field in which she worked, the very genre she had been instrumental in developing and furthering, had been illustrated to be old and stale, backward and, exclusive, in just two words: ‘arthritically white’.
This was not the scene Eliza knew.
In a rebuttal published in The Guardian only ten days after Koch’s initial piece, her anger at the original article was plain for all to read. Eliza explained how she feels that playing English traditional music is essentially a cultural invitation of ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’, as she plays across the world with musicians also showcasing their own traditional music.
But her sign-off truly illuminated how strongly she felt: ‘Bollocks to Nick Griffin. And because talk is not cheap when it comes to this, bollocks to Christian Koch. It’s just not funny.’
The far right’s apparent appreciation of the English folk scene, and the work that Eliza and her peers were doing, encouraged Jon Boden to think a little differently. ‘It scared the shit out of me, really,’ he shuddered. ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a perfect situation that we’re in, with people not understanding their music and that sort of stuff, but you have to be bloody careful not to play into the hands of the far right. It would be better if people used [English traditional music] more, because if you leave something lying around, you shouldn’t be surprised that someone comes along and uses it for something you’d rather they didn’t.’