Sitting in a recently harvested cornfield on a warm summer’s afternoon, listening to Martin Carthy singing and playing. With closed eyes it’s not difficult to tune out the surroundings and become lost in the world evoked by the timeless songs that have been his forte for well over 50 years. That afternoon at Wickham he gave a classic Martin Carthy performance, ranging from songs such as High Germany that he recorded in 1965 on his first solo album, to the version of My Son John with contemporary lyrics as recorded with The Imagined Village in 2010. When Martin performs a song, as well as the vocal, you get his carefully crafted guitar part and, frequently, a good deal of information about the song. So, amongst much else, we’re reminded that English songs from the times of the Peninsular War are rarely in praise of Wellington, popular opinion was much more in favour of Napoleon or that the version of Sir Patrick Spence that Martin sings uses the tune found by Nic Jones and recorded on his first album. For sure, this combination is what we’ve grown to expect from Martin but with the vast range of material he’s acquired over the years, even the most assiduous of his followers can anticipate hearing some unfamiliar songs and newly discovered background material. The hour he’s on stage passes all too quickly and finishes with what he describes as “a nonsense song”, The Devil and the Feathery Wife, the tale of an old man saved by his wife from the consequences of making a pact with the devil. It’s a song that Martin learnt from Bert Lloyd well over 30 years ago while Bert himself adapted the text from an 1832 collection of bawdy songs from N E Scotland. A traditional song continuing its long life in the hands of a master.
Martin’s thoughts on the songs and the singers from whom they were collected occupied much of the lengthy chat we had after his set. But before that, there was a slight wrinkle we needed to straighten out. In describing the 50+ years that Martin has been performing traditional folk songs I, unwisely as it turned out, used the word ‘career’. “No”, insisted Martin, “I’ve not had a career.” I needed some explanation of that. A career, in his mind, implied planning, setting and achieving personal goals. In contrast, what he sees, looking back on his years of performing, is a learning process. As time goes on he learns so much more about each song, even after singing a song for 40 years he can get a sudden realisation that changes his performance. Does he listen, then, to recordings he’s made in the past? Yes, there are old songs he can happily listen to and think “I couldn’t have sung it better…”, but then adds “…at the time” and so we’re back to the learning process. Would he give an example? Yes, Lord Franklin (he recorded it in 1966 – listen below) is a song he can still listen to happily. There are others he describes as “technically exactly right, just as I wanted it”. But then that phrase “at the time” appears again followed by “… I wouldn’t want to listen to it now.” Clearly the learning hasn’t always been a smooth process. Indeed, he identifies a time in the late 70’s that he now regrets, when he “…became obsessed with style to the detriment of the song.”
His perception of a song may change but he’s just as interested in how songs themselves change over time. He quoted Polly on the Shore as an example of a song whose lyrics started out life on a broadsheet, rough and “wooden” but evolved into a “sophisticated, subtle song”. And so our conversation moved to the singers who moulded these songs. Their musical sophistication is a continuing source of wonder for Martin. He brought up the example of Harry Richards, a Somerset singer from whom Cecil Sharp collected just three songs, but each time Harry sang the song there would be differences. Sharp’s manuscript notes, as so often happened with ‘educated’ collectors, put the changes down to memory lapses but for Martin they make more sense as deliberate variations. He wonders if Sharp only collected three of Harry’s songs because he just didn’t realise what he was dealing with.
Martin, of course, is not just a singer; he takes great care with the guitar pieces that accompany his voice. After the conversation we’ve just had, it comes as no surprise when he says his aim is always to support and emphasise the melody. If each verse of a song incorporates subtle differences to the melody then the guitar accompaniment will do as well.
As he approaches his 75th birthday next May, it seemed reasonable to ask how he viewed his future. At the time we talked, his next major commitment was the annual tour with Dave Swarbrick. This used to occur entirely in September but now extends into October, the same number of gigs but over a longer period. It gives them some respite days and for Martin “makes it enjoyable again”. He also sees no reason not to continue performing solo gigs, “…if only more people would ask me to play folk clubs”. In spite of having just played in a big top tent with a 3000 capacity he insists that he’s not a large hall singer.
This comment prompted the conversation to veer off slightly. His voice, he reckons, definitely weakened during five months of musical inactivity in 2011/12 when he spent all his time with wife Norma Waterson as she recovered from her life-threatening infections. Now, he says, he’s not at all sure that he wants the power back in his voice; he feels with a quieter voice he can get more intimate with a song. And so, time and again during our chat, we come back to “the song” and the learning process that performing for over 50 years has given him. “Why would anyone want that to stop?” he asks. Why indeed.
Returning to future possibilities, I was particularly interested to ask about one of his relatively recent ventures, The Imagined Village. How did he now view his involvement in that collaboration? The question brought a big smile to his face, “I loved it… there was so much individual talent… that then was immersed in mutual learning.” He hasn’t been involved in an Imagined Village gig for 4 years but he’s waiting for the phone call, “I’d do it again like a shot”.
Surveying the world of traditional English music today, one sees a healthy array of young musicians not only absorbing the tradition for themselves but also writing and composing material that it has inspired. Does that, in turn, inspire confidence in Martin that the future is in safe hands? Yes, he says, the freshness of new people discovering new things for themselves is always encouraging. There is one particular aspect that makes him feel uncomfortable though, a body of work being labelled a ‘project’. You can finish a project and move on, clearly he doesn’t see this fitting well with his lifelong learning approach.
Martin Carthy has been part of my folk music world since, as a teenager, I bought his first solo album when it was released in 1965. So it was inevitable that I approached this conversation with just a little awe. But, it speaks volumes for the man that, the following day, it was he that came up to me to ask, “Was that alright, yesterday?”
Interview by: Johnny Whalley
Martin Carthy & Chris Wood in session 1987
The most comprehensive website dedicated to Martin Carthy is Come Sing It Plain… run by Kevin Boyd (from which the above clip is taken), you can find it here: https://carthyonline.wordpress.com
Also make sure you pay a visit to the Wickham Festival website