You might well ask: is this tempting fate? To publish an official biography of a performer who's still very much alive, with a hell of a career still ahead of her… Well, OK, the officially stated rationale is that it celebrates the 21 years so far in the music business of Eliza Carthy: musician, singer, enthusiast, fan, researcher, broadcaster, working mum and much else besides. So, actually, this book is one that needed to be written at this time, just as Eliza is taking stock as she moves on to another chapter in her life (a concept I guess you'll understand more when you read this excellent and admirably thorough account of her first 36 years.)
For this book really does have so many things going for it. Firstly, it's about the right length (just 250 pages) to prevent boredom from setting in, and yet Sophie manages to achieve the seemingly impossible: telling her subject's story by providing a healthy mixture of factual accuracy, exposition, narrative and informed commentary and assessment, and keeping a credible balance between the lady and the music. Secondly, it's written in a sensibly readable style, friendly and accessible yet not afraid to stimulate or provoke reaction by presenting, though always with honesty and maximum respect, sometimes unpalatable or controversial information. Although at the very outset Sophie lays her cards firmly on the table, declares herself a big fan of her subject, and makes no secret of her admiration for Eliza as a woman as well as a musician, any element of idolatry in the text doesn't ever fall into the trap of gushing, and much additional insight is gained from drawing out a wider context when bringing into the picture the reactions and responses of the world at large to Eliza and her at times overwhelming myriad of musical activities - and how she's dealt with them in turn. And even when unable to sidestep some quite delicate matters, or difficult issues in Eliza's life and work, Sophie manages to share with her readers abundant insights and confidences without ever descending to the devices of the gossip column or sensation-seeking tendencies (even the recounting of the more outrageous escapades is done with due perspective).
It's generally the case that a biographer will be at pains to stake a claim for the special nature of his/her subject, but Eliza's uniqueness can never be disputed after reading Sophie's eloquent and persuasive account of her life and her (often not completely realised) contribution to so many aspects of the music scene (and not only "strictly folk", of course). Taking us in commendable detail through individual life-episodes (early upbringing with the touring family; schooldays; the duo with Nancy Kerr; Chipolatas and Kings Of Calicutt; being courted by That Major-Label; back to trad; innovation and writing; the Ratcatchers; Imagined Village; child-raising of her own; and latterly a particularly diverse array of overlapping projects). Sophie's really done her research, and taken into due account the highs and the lows, the uncomfortable and the easy, while assimilating and level-headedly assessing available critical commentaries and latterly blogs (although perhaps she's been over-reliant on Twitter, you might say).
The bottom line is that Eliza's a survivor: a fighter, and a hell of a role model for anyone, whether an aspiring musician or just a human being! Her dealings with others both in and outwith the folk or wider music scene, from family members to school acquaintances, agents and promoters to Warner Brothers executives, are candidly pursued through the text, and we learn much, most revealingly perhaps through Sophie's frank and detailed conversations with Eliza herself and her extensive and often penetrating interviews with everyone from Eliza's school music teacher to members of the extended Waterson: Carthy clan, via musical collaborators past and present, and of course friends and family. And to aid us in working out exactly who's who and where they all fit into the scheme of Eliza's life, Sophie has usefully included a basic family tree at the front of the book.
The format of the biography is basically linear and thus fairly strictly chronological, but with some entirely necessary leaps sideways or across to follow whatever strand of activity is relevant, not necessarily tangentially. This approach might not have worked so well were it not that Sophie has the ability to, stay focused even when pursuing a mercurial aspect; it's only when Sophie relaxes a touch, into the final chapter, that the more discursive, ruminative nature of the task in hand at that juncture brings with it a slight tendency to ramble - but after all, this can easily be seen as a reflection of the difficulty of predicting where Eliza will go next and where she will take her life and music.
I remain a touch unsure about Sophie's decision to append as an Afterword a 28-page sequence of fans' answers to a pre-determined common questionnaire; in the end I warmed to this more, simply because it further proved Sophie's thesis that Eliza's been such a huge - and varied - inspiration for so many different people. Admittedly, the majority of the fans questioned seem to have come to Eliza's music quite late in the day (Sophie herself being no exception, it turns out) - but there are plenty of well-chosen soundbites from fellow-musicians who rate her many talents highly and are quick to agree on how much they enjoy working with her professionally. And everyone seems to agree on her very positive personal qualities too: that key combination of serious, earthy commitment and a keen sense of fun, an entertainer and an educator informed by the natural (rather than specifically feminist) employment of the power of being a woman. Sophie's assessment is that Eliza's innate humanity and generosity, and her willingness to champion others, matches both her passion for music in all its guises and her outspokenness and already legendary determination.
The book contains a fascinating collection of personal photographs, to some of which Eliza has granted access for the first time, and the main text is supplemented by textual footnotes and a list of books, articles and other resources for further reading, with useful website links including one to the most comprehensive of the available discographies. The book's standard of editing is very high - welcomingly so, considering the slipshod proofreading I've come across in some music biographies - and here I only found one minor typo and a naming slip-up. But there's an additional irony here in that (although I've reviewed several of Eliza's album releases over the years) the only factual error I was able to spot in the entire book (although I obviously wouldn't ever claim true infallibility!) was the misattribution of a live gig review to me! Such is life I guess…
But the acid test of a good biography is whether after finishing it the reader feels they've actually come to know the subject well (or even at all); the answer here is a resounding yes - and all congratulations to Sophie for achieving this difficult feat.
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