Now the dust has settled on the celebrations around Martin’s 80th birthday – which was on 21 May in case you missed it – I thought it would be a good opportunity to give a roundup of what happened online and on the airwaves to mark the occasion.
Thank Goodness It’s Folk
In a special edition of the show, Sam Hindley and James Fagan interviewed Martin, who chose 12 pieces of music that have inspired and informed his own life in music.
The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe
Half of the 19 May BBC radio 2 programme was taken up with an interview with Martin by host Mark Radcliffe.
I recently dug out some aging slides taken at a Carthy & Swarb gig at Rotherham Arts Centre on 23 September 1989. They’re not the best quality but I thought they would be worth sharing for reasons of historic interest.
This was part of the second annual UK tour (the ‘Second Farewell Tour”) following on from the previous year’s reunion gigs. Support was by Dave Burland.
I made a recording of the complete show and although the only copy was stolen many years ago I still have a note of the set list:
The Rose and Monkey Hotelis a new venue on the edge of Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter and right next door to the historic Band On The Wall. It’s a small venue and tonight’s sold out gig was nicely crammed.
Martin continued his recent exploration of his older back catalogue and gave further hints that a new album might be on the horizon. John Barleycorn, High Germany and The Bedmaking (a request) are quite familiar by now and tonight he included the slightly less familiar (in terms of recent gigs) Bruton Town to the list of resurrected songs from his ‘60s and ‘70s repertoire. It came with an amusing intro featuring Davy Graham breaking into Martin’s 1960s flat and Martin ‘teaching’ Davy the tune Moanin’, only to subsequently discover Davy had already recorded his own version.
I hadn’t previously realised that Martin actually wrote one of the verses to Mike Waterson’s A Stitch In Time, but that appears to be the case based on that song’s intro tonight. I’m not sure I’ve heard Martin sing The Taylor’s Britches since the late 1980s, although I have a niggling doubt about that – maybe I have heard him sing it more recently? Either way, it that was a nice amusing addition. Martin expressed his indifference towards the well-worn tropes characteristic of songs such as Harry Cox’s The Barley Straw, from which Martin cribbed the tune for The Foggy Dew.
Bendigo, Champion of England has been a relatively recent addition to his repertoire and the rest of the set was fairly familiar from recent gigs. Martin abandoned Young Morgan after forgetting the words and there were a couple of other touch-and-go memory lapses but nothing that came close to spoiling the night. The first set was pretty low-key and quite short but the second was much longer and a bit less restrained.
First set: John Barleycorn Her Servant Man The Foggy Dew Bruton Town High Germany A Stitch In Time Bill Norrie
Second Set: Don’t Go In Them Lions Cage Tonight Bendigo, Champion of England Young Morgan Georgie The Deserter My Son John The Bows of London The Tailor’s Britches Long John The Bedmaking Downfall of Paris Oor Hamlet
It’s almost two years since my last Martin solo gig and this one was in the same venue. The Midway in Stockport is a proper old school folk club, with all the attendant pros and cons that come with grass roots music promotion. The seating was cozy to say the least, with people rammed into every available corner, and the lights took on a life of their own, deciding to stage a strike for at least 90% of the gig and only intermittently bursting into life at a few odd, unscheduled moments (see for example my Bows Of London video below at around 6:14).
The set was fairly familiar with only two items I’d not heard Martin sing before: Scarborough Fair has been back in his set recently in a version from Goatland originally learned for the BBC short drama Remember Me and there was a nice introduction referencing his experiences of that recording and his reaction to the finished version; Tea’s Made was one of only a handful of self-written songs regularly sung by Mike Waterson and it’s nice to hear Martin keeping this one alive and with Mike’s introduction/explanation pretty much entirely intact.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Martin forgot the words to two songs during the evening: Bill Norrie missed a couple of verses (Martin stopped and gave a brief précis of the missing verses before carrying on) and The Devil And The Feathery Wife had to go without its last verse.
First Set: The Bedmaking Her Servant Man Scarborough Fair When I Was A Little Boy Nancy Of London Bill Norrie A Stitch In Time
Second Set: Don’t Go In Them Lion’s Cage Tonight Bendigo, Champion Of England The Deserter High Germany My Son John The Downfall Of Paris Invitation To A Funeral The Bows Of London Young Morgan Georgie The Devil And The Feathery Wife Tea’s Made
“This is… Martin Carthy – The Bonny Black Hare and other songs” was one of a couple of major compilations of material from Carthy & Swarbrick’s 1960s recordings to appear in the early ‘70s. It was also the first Martin Carthy album I ever heard about 15 years after its original 1971 release, but I’ve never actually owned a copy until today.
I’d been obsessing over The Watersons for months after hearing them by accident on Andy Kershaw’s Radio 1 show in August 1986 and had borrowed everything of theirs I could find in my local record library. At the time, I worked as a printer and my mate and colleague Allan Wilkinson – you may know his tireless work as head honcho at Northern Sky Magazine – suggested I check out Martin Carthy: “He does the same type of songs as The Watersons but sings solo and plays great guitar. You’ll like him”.
I wasn’t interested. Not one bit! The thing I loved most about The Watersons was precisely their lack of guitars (or any instrumentation, for the most part) and the thing that set them apart was their inspiring harmonies. How could one bloke warbling on his own to a guitar accompaniment ever match the intensity of a Watersons album? I wasn’t having any of it, so I forgot about this “Martin McCarthy” bloke for a while.
Eventually, when it became clear I’d exhausted the record library’s supply of Watersons releases I took the plunge and borrowed a Martin Carthy album. This was in the pre-CD era when most mainstream record shops simply didn’t stock folk music, and even if they did it’s unlikely I’d have been able to afford them on my meagre wage so I borrowed. I’ve no idea why I chose to borrow this particular album on this occasion. I suspect it was the only one they had available at the time. The fact it was a cassette copy would seem to back this up – I’d always prefer vinyl back then given the option.
I don’t recall what I thought of Side One – The Fowler; Brigg Fair; The Barley Straw; Byker Hill; John Barleycorn; Streets Of Forbes. There was no Road to Damascus moment just yet, but I must have been impressed, or perhaps intrigued, enough to turn over for Side Two because I know I got as far as Ship in Distress, Jack Orion and White Hare. Then the next track started and everything changed…
Anyone growing up in the British Comprehensive schooling system in the 1970s and early-80s will know the excruciating agony of the weekly (if you were lucky – perhaps daily if you were less so!) communal school assembly sing-along. This is where I first learned – and learned to hate – such dross as Kum Ba Yah, All Things Bright And Beautiful, and He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands – the agonising list could go on! And because the Teacher Training Colleges of the ‘60s and ‘70s were breeding grounds not only for our future educators, but also for a future generation of folkies, the repertoire would invariably also be troubled with a smattering of contemporary folk ‘hits’, one of which was Sydney Carter’s Lord Of The Dance.
God, I hated that song! It was an irrational hatred, sure, but a real hatred nevertheless. I should say that I also hated Streets Of London and several of Simon & Garfunkel’s better-known ditties. It didn’t matter that some – probably all – of these were fine songs by any normal standards. The fact we were forced to sing them to insufferable piano or guitar accompaniments instilled a special kind of revulsion in the souls of those pre-pubescent lads and lasses who would much rather be listening to Sex Pistols, The Specials, Big Wheels Of Motown… virtually anything, in fact.
I wasn’t 100 percent certain the ‘Lord Of The Dance’ listed on the cover of my borrowed cassette was the same song I’d learned to despise several years earlier, but within the first few bars it became clear that it was. Then something weird happened… I found myself actually enjoying it. I mean – REALLY enjoying it! I still don’t know why – all my experience should have told me to hate it but, for reasons I still can’t properly explain, I was strangely fascinated by this odd little quasi-religious song.
Maybe I was finally hearing the song in a new light, or maybe it was just the forceful nature of the performance, driven by Carthy’s occasionally idiosyncratic vocal phrasing and Swarb’s driving fiddle. Whatever it was, it made me sit up and listen in a way I hadn’t quite managed with the previous tracks on the album. When the song ended, I played through the rest of the album – Poor Murdered Woman; Bonny Black Hare – then turned over and started Side One again, this time with a renewed interest in the words, their stories, the phrasing and the rhythmic quality to the guitar playing.
Ultimately, Lord Of The Dance didn’t last too long in my affections and was fairly quickly supplanted by the likes of John Barleycorn and Byker Hill from this album and a whole list of tracks from many other albums. In fact, it may be true to say that Lord Of The Dance is now one of my least favourite tracks from Martin Carthy’s 1960s albums, but I’m not sure that matters. Along with the other tracks on this album it did its job when I first heard it and got me started on a 30-plus-year passion – some may say near obsession (near? Who am I kidding?) – with Martin Carthy’s music. And today I can finally say I own a copy of the album – albeit on vinyl and not the cassette I originally heard – that changed everything…
I’m not much of a memorabilia collector but, perhaps because I started my working life in the print industry, I do have a soft spot for vintage posters, press materials and printed ephemera in general. So, after paying an unexpected £16.80 customs bill (not exactly extortionate, but still!) I just took delivery of this.
It’s a c.1971 US press pack from September Productions Limited from the personal collection of Ed Ward, a writer and radio commenter known as the “Rock-n-Roll Historian” for NPR’s program ‘Fresh Air’. Ed is one of the original founders of the SXSW festival and was on the staff of Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone and Creem magazines in the 60’s and 70’s.
Martin was signed to September Productions throughout the period he was in Steeleye Span during 1970/71 and for a brief time afterwards. The Carthy/Swarbrick album referred to in the hand written letter is most likely the 1971 Selections compilation that has been reissued several times and is still widely available. The album they hoped to make “for Europe and most English speaking countries” with the help of Transatlantic Records never really happened, although there was a (now extremely rare) release in New Zealand and Australia, also called Selections and including the two songs quoted in the letter. I’ve written about this ultra-rare release in a bit more detail previously.
Exactly 30 years ago today I was a young wannabe Kershaw-esque DJ type when I interviewed a slightly older (but in hindsight, still very young) Martin Carthy for mine and Northern Sky editor Allan Wilkinson’s hospital radio programme.
The recording has been gathering dust for three decades (although a full transcript is here) so I thought this anniversary would be a good opportunity to liberate it. It’s perhaps not the most professionally executed or insightful interview you’ll ever hear but listening back I think I managed to force a few interesting moments from Martin – if only by accident!
Anyway, here it is: nervous delivery, fumbled questions and all…
This was the last date of a short series of gigs (slightly curtailed part way through by bad weather) and took place at the recently-opened Stoller Hall in Manchester.
The set was similar to last year’s but with a couple of things swapped around and the addition of a new (to me at least) version of Ship In Distress, from the Copper Family version, as Eliza’s solo spot.
First set: Her Servant Man
Blackwell Merry Night
Nancy Of London (Martin solo)
Waking Dreams (Awake, Awake)
Second set: Grand Conversation On Napoleon
Ship In Distress (Eliza solo)
Died For Love
John Barleycorn (encore)
I left my camera at home but couldn’t resist taking a few iPhone snaps during their encore.