The Watersons,
Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy
(Topic, 1977; 2007)

In this remastered CD version of an LP released originally three decades ago, the Watersons -- siblings Mike, Norma and Lal (d. 1998), plus Martin Carthy (Norma's husband) -- turn their estimable talents and legendary harmonies to folk hymns and carols, both English and England-derived. The most recent composition is the 1930s "Heavenly Aeroplane" from the Holy Roller precincts of the American South, at least thematically a cousin to the better-known techno-gospel plaint "Life's Railway to Heaven." The bulk of the material, however, is of two or three centuries' vintage.

Nearly all unaccompanied -- a quartet called Gabriel's Horns backs Lal and Norma on the Advent hymn "Emmanuel," but otherwise, the "instruments" are human voices -- the songs draw on evangelical musical creations antecedent to the more polite mid-Victorian church hymns that bored me as a young Lutheran and still push me in the direction of comahood at the occasional weddings and funerals that in my adult life find me under the holy roof. A particular pleasure is the deeply strange ballad "Bitter Withy"-- traced to the 15th century, though it's probably older -- a decidedly noncanonical story of Jesus as spoiled child who, having abused his supernatural powers in a spat with playmates, rouses maternal fury of gale-force proportions.

As always, never content to rehash familiar texts and tunes, the Watersons researched their material meticulously. (That tradition continues in the Watersons' current generation as Waterson:Carthy, incorporating Martin, Norma, their daughter Eliza Carthy and one or two wayfaring non-family members.) Even the seasoned folk listener -- at least the one who, like me, missed this in its first, vinyl incarnation -- will find much that feels wondrously new. On the other hand, the Watersons could sing just about anything, sacred or secular, and they would transport me to some realm of musical heaven. Talk about your instruments of joy.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 October 2007

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