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Songs of good cheer at Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden’s Wassail

Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden’s Wassail at the Oxford Playhouse on Saturday, November 11

Review by JON LEWIS

Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden's Wassail
Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden's Wassail

TWO of folk music’s leading lights, Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden, entertained a packed house with songs and tunes with a Christmas theme.

Yorkshire-based, Carthy coastal, Boden inland, many of the numbers are Yorkshire variations on familiar themes, each song illuminated by a story that contextualises the lyrics. There’s an obvious chemistry between the duo with Boden a long-time member of Carthy’s Ratcatchers band.

Two of the songs were chosen by Carthy’s folk singer mother Norma Waterson before she died last year, both from the States.

Waterson was a fan of bluegrass and proposed a folk song from Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, which Carthy dedicated to a peaceful resolution to the current war in the area. With Boden on squeeze box and Carthy singing, the atmosphere felt strongly revivalist.

The second of the choices was Winter Grace, a song from Kentucky Appalachian musician Jean Ritchie with whom Waterson once swapped bonnets when they were both invited by President Nixon to perform in Washington. The song begins a capella then vibrantly turns into a hoedown with Carthy on fiddle, Boden playing guitar.

These songs felt personal, more emotional than the traditional English fare.

In the spirit of edutainment, the audience is given a history lesson. With Hunting the Wren, often sung on St Stephen’s Day, there’s a retelling of a story of how the wren was named ‘king of the birds’ by flying higher than other birds, cheekily hitching a lift on an eagle’s head. With Carthy on accordion, it’s a song recorded by her father Martin and so even more resonant.

Boden tells the audience that there’s an old Yorkshire myth that the skulls of the Three Wise Men were transported in three ships down the Humber. This anecdote illuminates their rendition of I Saw Three Ships, a familiar hymn rendered new.

It isn’t all serious: Boden camps it up royally for John Rox’s novelty hit I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas. During the song, her hands full, Carthy hilariously kicks a tambourine along the stage for an all-important note.

The audience lapped it up.

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