Tuesday, 4 December 2007

live review - martin carthy sings songs of the wellington wars @ southampton university

long before bob dylan realised the potential of playing around with identity, arthur wellesley, 1st duke of wellington, was shape-shifting his way through seven decades of british cultural history. he was a young officer rising through the ranks in india, a military hero who "liberated europe" on the fields of waterloo, a disastrous and short-lived prime minister, an unshakeable presence at the horse guards as commander-in-chief, an irascible elder statesman holding court at apsley house on hyde park corner (aka no.1, london), a pillar of the establishment who came out of retirement to defend london against chartist protesters in 1848, and a focus for patriotic sentiment on his death in 1852. he also got his picture painted by goya (see above) and pioneered lucrative product endorsement deals, putting his name on wellington boots, beef wellington and thousands of british pubs. as the 'iron duke' he had an excellent rap nom de plume. but he is not to be confused with duke ellington, who does jazz.

southampton university runs an annual wellington lecture. this year, in acknowledgement of wellington's pop-cultural presence, the lecture was given over to a musical performance by elder statesman of british folk, martin carthy. wittily self-deprecating and humble, carthy foreswore attempts at cultural or historical analysis, instead giving centre-stage to his selection of folk songs about the experience of war, with their fleeting glimpses of the duke. the performances are faltering, given that many of the traditionals have been unearthed from folksong collections specially for the lecture, but this makes the process all the more compelling, as carthy breathes life into songs that were collected at the turn of the last century from singers old enough to remember the hungry '40s, and to have known veterans of waterloo.

billed as a solo performance, carthy receives accompaniment from wife norma waterson, and from norma's bluff, flat-cap-wearing brother mike, one of the finest living exponents of traditional yorkshire finger-in-one-ear untutored folk-singing. norma handles a couple of solo tracks, giving a female perspective, with songs about the experience of the women who followed the military baggage train across europe, and those who waited at home. carthy mixes styles, genres and subjects, throwing in a thomas hardy poem, snatches of 'whiskey in the jar' (in english and irish cadences) , and songs featuring wellington's military and naval colleagues such as nelson. the officer class, from the perspective of the common soldiers singing the songs, is all-seeing but also ignorant of the soldiers' plight, sympathetic in their apportioning of rum, yet heartless in their cruel discipline, symbols of heroic valour and patriotism, but also of cowardice, self-interest and privilege.

carthy's populism, presenting the experience of war from the wide range of perspectives that the song-book offers, is also the lecture's greatest weakness: like dylan in the current biopic, wellington remains an elusive figure, sometimes entirely absent in the selections, sometimes glimpsed fleetingly. carthy admits frustration at being unable to find any songs about the duke's indian and peninsular campaigns, and wellington's second-life as a political hate-figure receives no reference, although there is no shortage of satirical song-sheet material on this period. perhaps a reliance on traditional collections (such as vaughan williams' work in hampshire and dorset in the 1900s) means that the songs dealing in universal themes have tended to survive in the sung folk tradition, while pointed satires have followed a different trajectory, aired only in more conventional academic settings. but this is an observation more than a criticism: carthy's skill as an interpreter and performer allows the audience to dwell on the easily-ignored connections between present and past. at a time of WAR, folks!

lal waterson - 'the welcome sailor'
(from the definitive watersons collection)

bonus video: martin carthy & dave swarbrick - 'byker hill'

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