Last updated on April 3, 2021
I pack the last of the chairs away and crawl out from the cupboard under the Whitchurch Folk Club stage, where Eliza and Martin Carthy have just performed. Eliza has a question regarding getting into London for a meeting the following morning. I see an opportunity.
“Don’t drive,” I suggest. “Take the 10:15 into Waterloo. It’ll only take you an hour and you could be back by mid-afternoon.”
“What about my dad?” asks Eliza.
“I’ll look after your dad,” I reply. “I’m sure we can find something to do.”
And so, my plan hatched and given the OK by his daughter, I find myself leading Martin Carthy up the garden path – quite literally – only a few hours later. Safely installed in my living room, with a cup of tea in his hand and a guitar resting nearby should certain points require illustrating, I pitch three or four hours of questions at this humble (although he cringes at the word), extraordinary gentleman – a legend by anyone’s standards, but so much more to your average folkie.
They say you should never meet your heroes. When it comes to Martin Carthy, they’re clearly wrong.
Martin Carthy on his childhood and the skiffle craze
So, Martin… where on earth to begin?
Well, I started off with skiffle. With this kind of music [folk], anyway.
We’re talking Lonnie Donegan – that kind of thing?
Yeah. We’re talking about ‘Rock Island Line’. That was the trigger, almost, for the whole awakening of popular music, or ‘People’s Music’. Popular music in the sense that it was people’s music. Literally millions of people started buying guitars. My family already had one; my dad had a guitar in the back room, and he had a fiddle. The guitar had a couple of strings missing. I don’t know if he ever played it. There was a tutor there who I ignored. I just wanted to play ‘Worried Man Blues’ or ‘Wreck of the Old 97’.
So you picked up on Lonnie Donegan first, or were you straight into people like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie?
Leadbelly was just a name to me. Woody Guthrie, too. There was a fella at school called Mick Baker, and I’d occasionally go around to his house…
[Clears his throat and starts the story from scratch] I went to school in Bermondsey, where my dad went. My dad was from the East End and he got a scholarship to this school, which was a big deal. His sister was a professional musician, so she had to go out to work.
Music was already in the family, then?
Yeah, there’s always been someone who played something or other. My dad, actually, played the fiddle, but he stopped playing because my mum didn’t like it. She said it was too rough. I never asked the question, “What sort of music did you play?” because I thought he was incredibly uninterested in what I did, musically. He became a really ferocious musical snob.
Oh yeah. “Do proper singing. Sing properly.” My sister and I used to sing in church – I always loved singing – and I became a chorister. That sort of interfered with my folk music for a while because of the way you sing. I sound like a bloody chorister on my first record!
Some of it’s good, but some of it – when I’m singing unaccompanied – it seems to me to start veering towards Gregorian chant singing. Plain song.
Yeah, that’s how it seems to me.
Can you comfortably listen to that first album still?
Oh yeah! There are some things on it I think I couldn’t have done better. One in particular, I think, is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Which one’s that?
‘Wind That Shakes the Barley’. I concluded that it’s because I wasn’t singing right at the top of my register. I always used to try and do that, because I thought it was a more impressive sound. Back then, a lot of it was just about trying to sound good. I was interested in what the songs had to say, but it really had to sound good.
That suggests that, these days, it’s much more to do with what the song has to say.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not half as well-equipped as I was when I was 24, but I’m a better singer now.
And when you say “better singer”, it’s because you feel you’re expressing the song’s essence more clearly now?
Well, it’s actually even more practical than that. Diction, I think, is so important. A lot of people, if I’m honest… their diction stinks. Frequently, if I didn’t know the song, I wouldn’t know what the hell they were saying. It’s something you have to learn yourself. I can go up to singers and say, “Watch your diction”, and they’ll go, [heavy on the sarcasm] “Yeah, right! Thanks for that!” In that sense, I’m a better singer.
But anyway, I was telling you about this bloke, Mick Baker, and his dad. He lived in Bermondsey, just by London Bridge, and I used to go around to his house. At that time, ‘Gambling Man’ by Lonnie Donegan was a hit. Mick’s dad said [puts on a heavy East London drawl] “That bloke Lonnie Donegan, he’s bloody rubbish. He gets half his stuff from people like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.” Woody Guthrie was a name I knew, but was the first time I heard the word ‘Leadbelly’. I just stored that word away. And then he said, “That bloody ‘Gambling Man’ is an Irish song. It’s also called ‘The Beggar Man’.”
That’s what did it for me. I began to realise that the stories had a history, that they had a story in and of themselves, aside from what they were saying. The existence of those songs… well, there was something going on there that really caught my attention.
Martin Carthy on the first folk songs he heard
And that was another thing. I heard, on The Third Programme, a thing called ‘Adventures of a Ballad Hunter’, with Alan Lomax. He did this whole thing on the music of the Georgia Sea islands – songs from the children of slaves, basically. He was singing all this stuff and he said, “Here’s an English folk song and it’s called ‘The Turtledove'”. It had this chorus: fa so la si do, and then so la so re. I was completely captivated. How the bloody hell did a song like ‘The Turtledove’ get over there?
So it wasn’t just the songs by this point. It was the stories, the…
…the notion. I wasn’t at the stories yet. I was hooked by this idea that there was stuff going on under the radar. Its fingers seemed to get everywhere. I just loved that idea. And information was so hard to come by.
Well, I was going to ask about that. Obviously you’re known for having this vast repertoire, but back in the late 50s and early 60s, how do you go about building a repertoire like that?
That’s a really good question. It was very hard to get into the Cecil Sharp House library because – and I’ve said this as a half joke before, but it really was true – they’d look at you [tilts his head back and stares at me down the edges of his nose] as if to say, “We are the guardians of The Tradition, and we’re guarding it from you.” That seemed to be the whole attitude, but that took a 180-degree turn when they got a new librarian there. Her name, god bless her, was Mrs Noise.
I swear to god. Ruth Noise [editor’s note: it turns out Noise is spelt Noyes]. She was a sweetheart. She’d basically open the door and say, “Well, what would you like?” I didn’t know what to ask for, really. I just wanted some songs. It was people like her who enabled people like me.
The Cecil Sharp collection was on microfiche. I remember when Swarb and I were working on stuff in the mid-60s, we’d be zipping through the microfiche and he could read it all [clicks fingers] like that. My reading was quite good by that time because I’d bought the journals of the Folk Song Society and the journals of the EFDSS. The journals of the Folk Song Society I’d bought for five quid, the lot – from 1898 to 1931 (or 32). It was fascinating. They always printed the very interesting tunes. I loved it and I wanted it – the weirder the stuff, the better!
But I have to go back to ’58 or ’59, and say that it was people who made a difference to me. That guy, Mick Baker’s dad talking about Leadbelly, and then saying that the Lonnie Donegan song was an Irish folk song.
Shortly after that, I met my first proper folk singers. I met Jeannie Robertson, an Aberdeen traveller. She was astounding. She knew what she was doing – she made herself a bit of a woman of mystery, but that’s alright. I sat with her all afternoon, and by the end of that afternoon I was beginning to understand a few of the words that she was saying [laughs]! It was the Aberdeen accent – there’s not a lot of it left – and it was beautiful.
So, you were sitting with these people and they were singing songs to you?
Talking, really. With Jeannie it was definitely talking. Then I saw Seamus Ennis.
A local hero called Robin Hall told me, “You’ve got to go to The Troubadour. That’s the place to go.” Now, I’ve really come to believe that there’s no such thing as coincidence. I went down to The Troubadour on that night because something was going to happen, and something in my head said, “Time to go to The Troubadour…”
I walked down the stairs and I heard pipes. I thought, “Oooh! Bagpipes! I know what they are.” In those days, the cellar of a coffee bar was always half-light. There was Seamus Ennis, sitting in the half-light, playing the uilleann pipes – pumping them; wrestling an octopus! What he got out of it… phew! Then he played the whistle, and then he sang. I was skewered.
Martin Carthy on Ewan MacColl and Sam Larner
Then there was this fellow called Roy Guest. Bit of a chancer. He got himself invited on stage as a guest at what was then called the Ballads and Blues, which was Ewan MacColl’s club. Later on it went out of existence and a couple of years later The Singers Club started. That was Ewan sticking his head over the parapet. He made himself a target so people threw things at him, including me. But none of us would be where we are now if it wasn’t for someone like Ewan being noisy about traditional song, and having a club where you didn’t sing American songs if you were English. “You sing what I want you to sing, and if you don’t like it, don’t come. This is my club. Those are my rules. You work it out.”
Didn’t he have a thing, though, where you had to sing in your own regional accent? Or is that a myth?
Well, yeah he liked that. But, you know, he was from Salford and he sang in this theatrical Scottish accent – more than passably good because his mum was from Perthshire. She was apparently lovely. I’ve talked to Neill, Ewan and Peggy’s son, because he’s a mate. He absolutely loved her. His younger brother, Calum, used to try and outwit Granny, and she always had him [laughs]. He’d say, “I can’t go to school”, so she’d feed him awful food so that he’d be glad to go and have school dinners [laughs again]. Wonderful!
But anyway, this guy, Roy Guest, got an invite from Ewan to sing at Ballads and Blues using an outrageous pitch. He said, “I’ve just been in Canada for five years collecting Canadian folk songs.” And, of course, this is gold. Ewan said, “Come along tonight. I’ve also got Sam Larner, the Yarmouth fisherman.” Roy was pretending, “Oh, great! I know Sam.” Of course he didn’t [laughs].
Roy asked me to go along with him, because nobody else would go. I used to annoy him, because I was at that age where I’d attach myself to any guitar player by a piece of string about two inches long [laughs]. I’d trail along. I think he asked me to go because I think he thought Ewan would attack him and throw him out, but he didn’t because Ewan was much more interested in showing his favourite English singer to an audience. “This is the real thing, kids. Whaddayareckon?”
So I went along, and Sam opened his mouth… [Martin sits agog, gazing into space as if he’s seen the light]. I thought I knew some of these English folk songs because I’d learnt them at school. I thought I knew, ‘Oh No John’, but I didn’t know ‘Oh No John’ like that!
Sam absolutely played with the audience – he knew what an audience was for. He’d sing a verse and then he’d stop and say [broad Yarmouth accent], “Am I t’go on?” And the audience would roar. He’d sing another couple of verses and then… “Am I t’go on?” He sang one of Jeannie’s songs, ‘Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man’, and it was a completely different version. I was totally captivated.
Ewan had obviously had him down at his house for a few days and he’d talked to him. Ewan didn’t sing that night. He was there to facilitate Sam Larner; to give Sam Larner to the audience. He wasn’t even interested in the fact that Roy Guest immediately revealed himself to be a fraud [laughs].
Yeah, he just let it ride. He wasn’t going to punch anybody. He was was going to have a good time and show the world this great bloke. He let Roy hang himself and he let Sam loose on the audience, including on this 17-year-old.
Here’s something I hear all the time: “What 17-year-old is going to be excited by folk music?” Well, hello! This fucking 17-year-old was blown away by Sam Larner. He wasn’t a pretty singer, but his passion was something else. And the melodies he sang… This has become like a beacon for me, but he sang ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. Ewan made sure it was the last song that he sang. It was theatrically brilliant – a masterstroke.
I’ve said this a million times, but I walked away from that place with that tune in my head, and I just thought, “You can’t sing a tune like that. That’s nonsense, that tune.” So I sang it a bit more, asking myself, “What kind of a tune is that?!” I recognised that he always landed [smacks hands together] on doh. Now, if the only tunes you were used to were [sings], “Oh, no John, no John…” – one of those very simple, very easy tunes – and that’s your experience of folk song and that’s what you think it is, then, oh boy, are you in for a surprise!
The merest, tiniest investigation will reveal stuff. Don’t try and correct it. Just do it. You realise that all these funny little accidentals… people just stick them in because that’s the way the tune goes on that day. That’s a really interesting notion because the tunes can vary from day to day. [Stares in wonder and then smiles] I’m not quite there yet. Sometimes I’ll stick one in and think to myself, “Oh, you cheeky boy!” As I get older, spontaneity is beginning to dawn on me. But when you experience the real thing, it’s marvellous.
Do you think it’s still possible to experience the real thing, given that you’re talking about a generation – Sam Larner’s generation – that’s now gone?
Erm… well, Walter Pardon turned up out of the blue, back in the 70s. People were saying, “Is Walter Pardon for real?” He had this huge repertoire. In fact, he had three repertoires. He got what we called his traditional songs from his uncle – Uncle Billy G. He always talked about this uncle. But then he had his father’s repertoire, and he had his mother’s repertoire. He knew them all.
Norma said to him once, “Why don’t you sing your mother’s songs?” And he said, “Because they always make me cry.” He was a very emotional man, and he had a very particular notion about the way the songs should be sung. He said, “What I do is I walk onto the stage, take my hat off my head so they can see my hair and how little I have left, put my hands behind my back and then I sing the song.” He sang in a very matter-of-fact way, often very arhythmically. But then, when you listened a little more closely, you realised just how thoughtful his phrasing was. It was never that simple.
Spinning back to the 60s, there was this really eclectic mix of music going on. You have the folk revival – the stuff you guys are doing – and then you’ve got The Beatles and all of those rock pioneers. I wonder whether you were interested in that side of things at all?
Oh yeah, we were interested! Very much so!
You weren’t completely single-minded and focused on traditional folk music?
Well, yes we were, but you couldn’t be anything other than excited by what was going on in rock’n’roll. The Beatles, The Who… And there was Traffic. They were absolutely mad on The Watersons. Apparently, Jim Capaldi could do an absolutely spot-on, fantastic impersonation of Mike.
Yeah, you can’t ask him to do it now because he’s dead. And Stevie Winwood has always loved folk music, but he just does what he does. Of course, Bob Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think Bob Dylan just changed everything, and I mean everything. They wanted him to be the new Woody Guthrie, but he was never going to be that.
Martin Carthy on Bob Dylan’s first visit to London
Bob Dylan came and stayed with you in London, didn’t he?
He never stayed with me, no. He came over to do a play and the BBC put him up at The Cumberland, or one of those hotels in the West End. At other times he’d stay at The Savoy. But the story about him staying with me is… what’s the word?
But he picked up songs from you, didn’t he?
Well, we spent quite a bit of time together. We just hit it off. He would come to The Troubadour. I was a resident there and he’d come down, and he’d always sing a couple of songs. He would always sing his difficult songs, too. I remember him singing “Where have you been my blue-eyed son?”, and I was thinking he was singing ‘Lord Randall’. About three seconds later I realised he wasn’t singing ‘Lord Randall’ at all. He was singing, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’. So much stuff goes on in that song. We were just enthralled.
I’ve heard it said that when he first sang in London, people thought he was ridiculous. No! I was there the first day he sang in London, and he didn’t sing at The Singers Club – he sang there on the Saturday. The Friday night was our club at The King & Queen, and he stood up and sang the three-song set that all floor singers sang in those days. But he just blew people away. A fabulous presence. He went to The Singers Club the next night, and from there he came down to The Troubadour. He just sang all sorts of stuff. I remember him singing ‘Hollis Brown’, and then he sang one called ‘Emmett Till’, which appeared on one of his official bootlegs later on. He sang all of that in ’62.
But he clearly wasn’t one who felt that a traditional song should be kept as a kind of museum piece. He was adapting these traditional songs all the time.
Yes, he was a real magpie, but he had this wonderful creativity that went along with it. There’s this wonderful idea that he’d plant people in the audience with recording equipment and then he’d go away with the tapes and adapt the songs he’d heard. Again, no! What he had was a memory like a piece of blotting paper. If somebody sang something that he thought was wonderful, he’d go back to his hotel and write down what he remembered. It might come out as a new song, but that’s where it would be from.
Is he someone you’ve been able to keep in touch with? Do you hear from him now?
I haven’t seen him for years. I occasionally get a little, “Hi!”, but very, very occasionally. The last time I saw him perform was when he played Blackbushe Airport in ’78.
I remember seeing him at the Royal Festival Hall in ’64. He filled the place. He was brilliant. He sang songs like ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol’.
Oh, what a song!
My god! When he finished – “Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears” – the fucking place exploded!
Albert Grossman, his manager, did an interview with a magazine called John Bull. It was about the hit parade of tomorrow. We all fell about with laughter. “Don’t be silly! Nobody’s gonna put Bob Dylan in the charts. He’s too good!” Within a year, there he was. And within another year he was making Bringing It All Back Home, which I thought was just bloody brilliant. I laughed for days about the line, “I wake up in the morning and there’s frogs inside my socks”. People would say, “What’s so funny about that?” Well, it made me laugh! Every song on that was wonderful. And side two… just extraordinary.
He was racing through albums, but then, so were you.
Well, at that age you are.
How were you making these albums? The Martin Carthy catalogue from the 60s and 70s is huge. I wonder how you managed to find the time to research, arrange and record so many songs.
Well, the first album was ’65, and that was my repertoire. When Swarb came in, he came down the night before recording. He said, “Let’s find a song that you and I can do.” He said, “I’d love it if you sang, ‘A Begging I Will Go’.” So we agreed that one beforehand.
We agreed to do ‘Lovely Joan’ in the studio! ‘Broomfield Hill’, we found the tune for it and worked out a set of words in the studio, too.
First time! Then there was ‘Sovay’, which Bert Lloyd had given to The Campbells, and The Campbells wouldn’t do it. So we did it.
Martin Carthy discusses ‘Scarborough Fair’
It was a given that I was going to do ‘Scarborough Fair’. Everybody had a song that was their thing, and then all the other guitarists had to be able to play it. You wouldn’t do other people’s songs at your gig, but you had to be able to play them.
Number one was Davy Graham’s ‘Angie’. Bert Jansch’s thing was ‘Strolling Down the Highway’, so we all had to be able to play ‘Stolling Down the Highway’. I could do it, but I never did it in public. Mine was, ‘Scarborough Fair’, so everybody else had to be able to do it.
Do you still do it? Is it a song, for example, that you’d put into your set these days?
No. I’ve started doing another version of it recently, but that song’s got too much baggage for me. I love the fact that Bob Dylan got ‘Girl From the North Country’ from it. It was very typical of him to do that – very him. In fact, he came back and he said [cue Bob Dylan impersonation], “I wanna sing you this!” And he started to sing it, and he was trying to do the guitar figure. He got halfway through the first verse and he said, “Oh man, I can’t do this!” [Lauhs] He wasn’t really ready. He was just so excited about it.
Martin Carthy discusses Paul Simon
And of course Paul Simon did ‘Scarborough Fair’, and that’s fine. Once I actually owned up to myself that the people who made The Graduate weren’t going to come banging on my door saying, “Oh, we hear you sing that song – we want you to do it!” Once I got past that… It was my signature piece, but it’s a traditional song, for god’s sake! Why shouldn’t he do it?
You played it together a few years ago, didn’t you?
We did. In ’98 he did a tour on which he was reawakening old friendships and retrieving old friendships. He phoned me, I think from Stockholm, and he said, “I’m doing three nights at the Apollo. Do you wanna come and sing?” I said, “I’ve got gigs on two of the days but I’m alright on your last night at Hammersmith.” He said, “Come along!”
I went along and realised, again, the same thing as when I went to see Bob at Blackbushe in ’78. They say sublimely, “Come and see me and we’ll hang out.” Just you try! Oh boy! Deary me. I managed to get into see both of them, but by god! People like that probably don’t realise the level of security that surrounds them. It’s so discreet that they don’t know. You’ve got to shenanigan your way past them somehow. I managed to on both occasions, and it was lovely.
Was there a sense of closure about singing that song together?
Erm… [thinking] closure… It was lovely to do it.
He said, “What do you wanna do?”
I said, “‘Scarborough Fair'”.
He said, “You sure you wanna do that?”
I said, “Yeah, I’d like to do that.”
He said, “OK.”
He took enormous care. “What guitar should I play?”
I said, “I think you should play the guitar you want to play.”
“Is this one OK?”
“If that’s the one you want to play, you play it.”
“Is my singing OK for you?”
“Yeah, absolutely fine. Let’s just do it.”
“Oh yeah! I’m absolutely fine playing with Steve Gadd! You wait until I get back and tell Swarb I’ve been playing with Steve Gadd. He’s going to be quite jealous.”
Steve Gadd looks up and says [almost yawning], “I’m just a fuckin’ drummer.”
Haha! What a legend.
Can we go back to the question about researching, learning and arranging songs at speed? You were saying that your first album was somewhat spontaneous.
Well, it was the repertoire I already had. Some of the second album was like that, too. That’s why first and second albums are sometimes the best, because after that you’re going into stuff more recently learnt. I think there was only one song I learnt especially for that first album, and that was ‘Broomfield Hill’. ‘Scarborough Fair’ was already in my repertoire. ‘High Germany’ was. ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ was.
‘Ye Mariners All?‘
That was. ‘Sovay’ was more recently learned, as was ‘Two Magicians’. I was exploring – trying to find out stuff. I wasn’t going to be put off. It was important to me. I just wanted to find out how this music worked.
Swarb had one saying that was absolutely wonderful. It was when we’d just started working together again. I was starting to work on this long intro I had for ‘Byker Hill’. I was working on bits that could underpin what he was playing. He was the ace improviser and I was the person who wanted to give him some kind of platform. I wanted to play something that might spark something in him.
After a gig I’d work on things, while I was still hot to trot. I was in his house working on something, and he was standing leaning against the wall. I said, “Is it OK to do this?” [meaning to alter traditional pieces in such a way]. He just said, “You can do anything to music. It doesn’t mind.”
Haha! That’s great.
Isn’t it a great thing to say? That’s how he felt about it.
The great thing about Swarb was that he never counted bars. If you said something was in nine, he’d just play it. He’d just learn the tune. He’d rarely fall out of time. He could follow you wherever you went. If you suddenly stuck in a variation, Swarb was there on your coattails: “Gotcha, you bastard!” Swarb was quite remarkable.
Martin Carthy on his favourite young folk musicians
Do you see anyone among the younger musicians now that have a similarity to Swarb?
Well, he doesn’t have a similarity to Swarb, but he has that same sense of adventure and fun: Sam Sweeney.
You did some gigs with him recently, didn’t you?
We did two gigs. The guy from Serious Music rang up. Whenever he rings up, you know it’s always going to be interesting. He said, “What I want is to have Sam Sweeney and Martin Carthy work out 90 minutes of music. They need to work on it, and then we’ll give them the day before and as long a soundcheck as they like to rehearse and finalise what they’re going to do. We’ll give them a rehearsal space, they can make themselves ready, then they’ll do the gig.” So we did.
Sam is remarkable. Very, very different to Swarb, but he has a remarkable attention to detail and he passes it on to you. He certainly passed it on to me.
We did the first gig and it was wonderful. So Alan Bearman [booking agent] asked us how we’d feel about doing another one at Sidmouth [last year]. It was an opportunity to work a bit more on the stuff we’d worked out. We played better and were more relaxed in each other’s musical company for the second one. We made several crucial adjustments so that things happened, and we both got really excited. It was huge, huge fun. We resolved that we’ll put it down on record at some point. And we will.
I think he’s fabulous. There are other good ones, but Sam… well, Sam is special.
The standard, generally, is massively high.
Do you think traditional music is having a peak time at the moment, in terms of quality?
It’s interesting. Technically, things are hugely different and hugely improved. When that folk music degree started at Newcastle University, I was slightly worried by the fact that everybody wanted to play but not so many wanted to sing. There were a couple of great singers there like Emily Portman. I think she’s just fantastic. Jim Causley, too. He’s a natural. I rate him as a singer. He’s a real bass. He’s very plain, but that’s deceptive. He’s hugely musical. I think he’s bloody good. No trickery – he’s just relaxed, and his diction is great [laughs].
That’s what I’ll be taking from today: an attention to diction.
Seriously! It’s the most important thing. When you’re telling people a story, the words are all you’ve got. I’ve sometimes said that it doesn’t matter about the tune. Of course, that’s nonsense because it’s really nice to sing a song to a nice tune. Sometimes you’ve got to do a little bit of work so that they sit right with the melody. There’s nothing wrong with that. When you start playing with words, that’s when you start to find your feet as a writer. You start to develop some understanding of pacing and timing. So, arranging it to your own taste, as far as words are concerned, is critical.
Presumably all of that informs the way in which you play guitar? It’s almost as if the melody takes precident above chord structure.
Well, I don’t play chords. I try not to, but all sorts of voicings happen and they’re all deliberate. Those melodies are extraordinary. Chording doesn’t work for a lot of what I’d call modal tunings. What I’ve consciously done is to play to the singing rather than singing to the playing. Most people, when they pick up a guitar, will sing to the playing. For me, it’s the other way around. That’s why I do a lot of stuff where there’s just a notion of a pulse, rather than a strict rhythm. Of course, that doesn’t hold true all of the time.
Martin Carthy on his guitar style
I was going to say… there must’ve been a point where you developed that style, either conciously or otherwise, because it’s not apparent back on your first albums.
It’s not there on my first album. Not at all, no. For me, it was about keeping it very simple. I can do it in just about any song – weaving in and out and allowing the words to dictate what the pulse is.
One of the most extraordinary things I noticed watching you and Eliza last night was that, on the occasions when you might slip up on a line, you simply repeat it and she’s right in there with you as though nothing has happened. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s fascinating to see it occur.
That’s something that we learned, Eliza especially, from playing with Norma. Norma would frequently add a bar, or half a bar. We’d just allow it to happen and then let it settle down again.
Why would Norma do that? Was it just an impulse? In the moment?
Yeah, sometimes just in the moment. Norma rarely makes mistakes – and I mean really rarely.
Martin Carthy discusses The Watersons
That said, one of the things that used to happen with The Watersons all the time, on those unaccompanied songs, was that we’d spontaneously leave out a verse. All of us! We’d get to the end and just look at each other [laughs].
“Where did it go?!”
Yeah! “Did we sing so-and-so?”
We’d all do it because everybody follows everybody else in the moment. Nobody knows, and nobody else sees it.
What kind of effect did meeting and singing The Watersons have on your way of performing?
Well, it simplified it for me. It made me stop being such a clever dick. I was quite self-conscious. I’d just gone through a really intense re-evaluation of the way I was singing. Oh god! I went through a dreadful period.
When was that?
What is ‘the hole’? Is it a style of singing?
It was a ridiculously mannered way of doing things. I just had to try my best to work my way out of it.
That’s fascinating. You were aware that you were doing it, you knew you didn’t like it, and yet you still did it.
Well, I wasn’t aware at first. I went to do a recording for Sweet Wivelsfield. I went back into the control room and they all said, “that sounded good.” They played it back and I thought, “What the fuck are you doing?”
I asked, “Is that what I sound like?” and they told me it was. Fucking hell, it was awful!
“Can I record over that?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m very sure.”
People had got used to the fact that that was the way I sang, so they judged it accordingly. It was rubbish. A travesty, rather than everything else. I just had to start climbing out of the hole.
And singing with The Watersons…
…it was a great way of keeping it plain.
What an interesting word choice. You take any one of those three sibling singers alone, and ‘plain’ is about the last adjective you’d use.
But it was always to the point.
Mike Waterson was an extraodinary singer. He was like a vocal gymnast.
He was fabulous. Phew! His timing was fabulous. One thing about The Watersons was that they always had an unerring sense of the right tempo – of how to take something. Both individually and as a group. Mike had it from when he was 21 years old. He sang like an adult.
You can see how unwavering he was in ‘Travelling for a Living‘.
Yes, indeed. He was the best singer that any of the folk groups of the 60s produced, by a country mile. Louis Killen was good, but he went to live in the States, which was a loss to us.
There seem to have been a few that fell by the wayside. I’m thinking of Anne Briggs…
Well, Annie’s husband didn’t like her doing it and did his best to stop it. Annie was a fabulous singer. A real wild thing. Hearing her sing at the age of 16, you wouldn’t have believed she was 16.
You mentioned to me over lunch that you were thinking about revisiting some of the songs you did on your early records for a new record. A couple of questions spring to mind: how do you choose those songs, but also – on a more day-to-day basis – how do you choose a setlist when you have a repertoire the size of yours? I mean, how big is your repertoire? Do you know?
I’ve no idea. There’s stuff that I half-remember that I wouldn’t necessarily dig out of the hat and sing without sitting down and going through the words. I mean, I haven’t sung ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ for years. More recently I’ve been thinking I ought to start doing that again. I think I’ve got it all back so that I can sing it like that [snaps fingers].
I recall reading an interview with you where you said that you suddenly decided, spontaneously, to perform ‘The Bedmaking’, only to find that you weren’t able to recall anymore than the first few lines.
Oh yeah, that happened just recently. I basically stopped after the first two verses and said, “I think I’m going to give up. This is silly!” [Laughs] The audiences love it when you mess up like that. They really do.
Do you have a method of remembering those ballads? When you launch into a song with 30-odd verses, are you relying on visualisation or something?
Erm… I’ve just got good at organising them. Sometimes it feels like a film script. “That scene notes a change of scenery, so go to there.” But when you’ve organised it in a particular way, then it becomes very personal indeed. To forget it in performance is almost unthinkable, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. It happened fairly recently and I said, “Sorry, I’m going to have to stop. This has gone.” Instead, what happened was that I started to speak the story, and then the line came back to me so I dived back into the song again. I’d seen people do it and wondered how they did it, and on this occasion, spontaneously, I did it. The thing was, I wanted to tell people the story, and just by telling the story, the line I wanted came to me. I can’t guarantee that will work every time. I think it worked because it was spontaneous.
So, how do you pick the setlist or plan this new album? Presumably, the tour you’re doing the Martin and Eliza Carthy tours, it’s a strict set of songs?
Yes, we’re singing the album, The Moral of the Elephant. We’re very comfortable with that. For instance, ‘Bonny Moorhen’ I did for the album and then gradually learnt it. It has to be able to organise itself. When I get the words and the timing right, it’s unstoppable. It’s an amazing song. But, yes – the set is more or less then same every night.
But that’s just when you’re performing with Eliza, right? Presumably, on your own, you’re more free to do as you please?
I have two or three sets. For me, it’s usually my current favourites. Then I might spontaneously change the whole thing one night. Then I’m often in trouble, because when you do something spontaneously it can be very exciting, so you try and repeat it the next night but you can’t because you can’t remember what it was that you did that gave it spontaneity. It’s weird, but it happens to be true. I mean, there are some singers who religiously write down what they did every night. Vin Garbutt, for example. If he was going back to a club, he’d go back to his notes and find out exactly what he sang. Others do a similar thing. They avoid what they sang last time, or take note of which songs to repeat. I’m just not that organised.
The idea of redoing some of these songs on an album – what makes you want to do that? Is it that you believe that there are no definitive versions of a song (a very Dylan-esque idea), and that it’ll have developed and changed over the years since you recorded it?
Yep. And some are songs where I’ve deliberately worked on variations, and made changes, perhaps, for a particular verse.
Martin pulls out up a list of songs on his phone and goes through what he plans to record. He critiques his original recordings based on guitar tunings and verses that no longer work for him. As fascinating as this is, I’ve left it out on the basis that the album is yet to be recorded, and is still a relatively private process. Let’s talk about it again at a later date.
Martin Carthy on Georgie
Not that you’ve selected this song for your new album, but I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Geordie’ / ‘Georgie’. It’s an interesting example of a song you’ve approached in the past via two different versions. It’s essentially the same song, isn’t it?
Oh yeah. Yes, it is.
I was talking to Nicola from Stick In the Wheel, and in her opinion, your recording of ‘Georgie’, as performed in your garden, is pretty much all you need.
On the other hand, I can’t get beyond ‘Geordie’ – the beautiful, fluid reading of it from Crown of Horn .
Well, curiously, both of them I learnt from recordings of the singer.
What, both versions came from the same singer?
No, no. Different singers. I learnt ‘Geordie’ from John Pearse back in ’59 or ’60. He was one of those people who, if you asked him for the words of a song, he’d always give you them. He just gave his songs away like that [clicks fingers]. Everybody else would refuse. They’d usually say [does what sounds like an impersonation of Neil from The Young Ones], “No, man. I promised I wouldn’t.” [Laughs] It was the most infuriating thing! So, that’s why I learnt to get songs on one hearing.
So you had that Dylan-esque blotting paper thing going on, too?
It was of necessity. If you wanted the song, you had to learn the fucker! You just had to concentrate. I learnt that song, ‘Domeama’, in one hearing. I asked the singer for the words and he said that thing, “No, man. I promised.” I was so angry! I went home and I just sat there. I had a piece of paper and pen by me, coincidentally, and I just started noodling. He’d had this little guitar figure at the beginning of the song, so I started playing that, and suddenly I remembered the first verse. I played it again, wrote it down. Then I remembered another line and wrote that down. Eventually I remembered the entire thing. I’d gone home from where he was singing and sat down on the bed, so it was fresh in my mind.
We’re talking about seven lengthy verses here!
Anybody can do it. If you decide you’ve got to have it, it’ll be in there somewhere [taps his skull]. I got the whole thing and I wrote it down and sang it to myself. I adjusted some verses, and I was thinking, “Wow. I think I’ve got it.” I sang it the next night somewhere, and I knew I had it. Eventually I heard the bloke sing it again, and I thought, “Yep. Got it.” I had the whole thing. Never said a word.
I learned a few songs on one hearing that weren’t necessarily all that short. Anyway, John Pearse gave me ‘Geordie’ in 1960, I think, and I was very happy. It was my signature piece for a few years, and then I abandoned it after a while, thinking it was old stuff – I just put it away.
Then I got a chance to make a programme out of stuff from the BBC sound archives. One of the recordings I used was Louisa Hooper, who worked in the vicarage where Cecil Sharp first collected songs.
Louisa Hooper. She had a sister called Lucy White, and sometimes they sang together, so there are songs collected from both. Then there was a third sister – Lizzie. So there was Louisa, Lucy and Lizzie. There’s a recording of Louisa singing ‘Geordie’, not in 1903 but in 1940. She’s a much older person. She’s singing to Maud Karpeles, who was one of those old school collectors who loved the tune but thought the words were rubbish because they weren’t literary enough for them. The Scots stuff was considered very impressive because the language was beautiful, but English country singers’ stuff was considered less so.
Anyway, Louisa gets to this verse, “Geordie shall be hanged in the chains of gold”, and she stops and says, “Chains of gold. Now, there’s hanging for you.” You know, a tear came to my eye. In the background, Maud Karpeles says [very prim and proper], “It’s such a lovely tune, isn’t it?” Shut up, Maud Karpeles! Stop it!
But finding that made me want to sing it again. I heard someone sing it, and they sang it in that rather crisp way that you hear on Crown of Horn. I decided I’d play it in a different way, so that if it was in ‘E-minor’ I’d actually have the root note as though it was in ‘C’. That’s why you suddenly get that flattened fifth. I did it not romantically but bluntly. That’s the only word I can think of. It’s crisper. A bit punchier. I’ve shifted the tonal centre. I loved doing it like that because it made great sense to the way I was feeling at the time – really trying to use the guitar.
Then I heard Levi Smith, and I’m thinking, “What the hell is that?” I listened to it again and again, that apparently throwaway version of it – speak-singing. By that time I’d listened to a lot of very old recordings so my ears were getting quite sharp. That’s how you find stuff. Don’t question what you’re hearing. Just absorb it. Those people knew what they were doing.
So then I had to decide for myself whether it was in the minor or the major, because he sings it in the cracks so much. Norma was saying, “Why don’t you play it on guitar?” By that time I was beginning to realise that that was what governed whether I sang the song or not: whether or not I could play it on guitar. So I started trying to play it, worked it out, and I just fell in love with it.
Then I heard his brother singing it. He’s singing the same thing but he sticks a couple of variations in. But that line, “Geordie shall hang in chains of gold” [looks like he’s had his breath taken away]… It’s all about paying attention to what people sing. Especially the gypsy singers, because they’re doing some amazing things. They sing the tunes that are handed down to them, and it’s often in the cracks. It certainly works for me.
It’s very hard to find your way into if you’ve spent your life listening to pop music.
Yes, it’s harder when you’ve been listening to stuff that is tuned.
The biggest problem I have as someone attempting to play some of these songs is abandoning the strict necessity of time signature – feeling your way through, as you said earlier, on a pulse rather than anything else.
Yeah. You just let it happen to you. Play what’s there. One way of doing it is to accept that a quaver is a short note, a crotchet is a longer note, and a minim is a slightly longer note still. Then try to sing it not in tempo. It’s a trick, if you can do it. You could do worse than write out the tune and get rid of the bar lines.
This is basically a slightly re-worded version of a very common question, but if someone was coming to the Martin Carthy back-catalogue for the first time, which albums would you start them off on?
Martin Carthy on his favourite albums
There was a clarity of purpose about the first album, and – to a certain extent – the second album. I like bits of all the albums.
A really important one for me was Prince Heathen. That’s when I understood that changing something was not the work of Satan [laughs].
You were allowed to do it.
You must do it. It’s essential to do it. I changed the song ‘Prince Heathen’ to have a happy ending. The first time I got through it I got to the end and shouted, “No! You can’t do that!”
So, when you say change it, you’re actually talking about re-writing sections of the songs?
Yes. In the version of ‘Prince Heathen’ that’s in Child [a song in which a woman is raped, imprisoned and only released when the baby is born, and the criminal father only falls in love with the mother once he sees her washing and wrapping her child for warmth], it says he wraps her in silk and washes her in milk, and the hearts are breaking and hands are bowing, and he says that now he loves his lady. And there’s no hint that she says, “No! Bollocks to you! ‘I love you’ is not enough! What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?!”
It’s very important that that notion is there. There are one or two people who have sung it with that happy ending [in which the woman forgives the man simply because he says he loves her], and I find that so foolish. I don’t understand why she has to give in. Why would you want her to do that? The song is about clarity of purpose. It’s about firmness in the truth, in the Gandhian sense. When people said it was passive resistence, Gandhi said, “No, there’s nothing passive about it. This is about staying true. That is not passive.” A woman reviewer actually talked about it as “The Power of No”. I think there was a duty to change it. Once you get into that idea, then you can start to run with it. You’ll still make mistakes, but that’s OK.
So, you had clarity of purpose on the first album, Prince Heathen saw you realising that things could be change…
It was a watershed moment. It really was.
After that, I’m very fond of Crown of Horn. I had a lovely time making that. After I’d finished it, I walked out of the studio and saw a kingfisher. I’d never seen one before. I was absolutely knocked out.
The next album that I really like is Because It’s There. Then there’s the first Brass Monkey album. I really love that one, and I love the albums that Swarb and I did around 1990, 1992. Life and Limb and Skin and Bone. I’m very fond of them.
Signs of Life had some tunes that meant a lot to me at the time. It had ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on it. One thing I’ve often said, when asked, is that I bought three records on the same day: ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That always struck me as important. I always say that ‘Rock Island Line’ was the trigger, but I never learnt the words. The only words I learnt from those three records was ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
That song was so important to your generation, wasn’t it? It was the gateway song for Jagger, Lennon, McCartney…
Oh yeah! The most important thing about it, though – and the reason I recorded it – was that I discovered it was written by a woman. Ever heard of a guy called Hoyt Axton? Well, his mother wrote that song. She was a country musician. She’d been writing songs ever since she was little. If you listen to that song as a song written by a woman, it takes on a whole new thing.
Since my lover left me
I’ve found a new place to dwell.
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel.
I’ve been so lonely darling,
I’ve been so lonely.
I’ve been so lonely I could die.
Although it’s always crowded
Still you can find some room
For brokenhearted lovers
To crowd there in the gloom.
I’ve been so lonely darling,
I’ve been so lonely.
I’ve been so lonely I could die.
The bellhop’s tears keep flowing
The desk clerk’s dressed in black.
They’ve been so long on Lonely Street
They’ll never wanna go back.
I’ve been so lonely darling,
I’ve been so lonely.
I’ve been so lonely I could die.
So if your lover leaves you
And you’ve got a tale to tell
Just take a walk down Lonely Street
To Heartbreak Hotel.
You see? I saw it in a different light when I realised a woman wrote it.
OK! Last question, and possibly the most emotional one. Is it possible for you to sit back and cast a glance over all that you’ve done and be aware of the influence you’ve had on us all?
[Looks very bashful] Well, when someone like Tim Ericksen, a hugely accomplished guitarist, says he copies me because that’s the sound he wants, then I’m hugely flattered. If they say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, well, thank you very much. But usually, when someone stands up and plays just like me, I think, “cheeky bugger!” [Laughs] It’s all good humoured. I think, “Cheeky sod. I know where you got that from!”
The lovely photo at the top of this article is by Elly Lucas, whose work with modern folk musicians really deserves recognition. Take a look at her collection here.