In 2002 Martin Carthy was awarded Degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa by the University of Sheffield. This is the text of the degree ceremony oration given on 26th July 2002:
There is a saying that the best folk music is born of tradition but enlivened and invigorated by new ideas. The honorary graduand who stands before you today personifies this maxim. Widely respected in folk circles, he is an outstanding singer, a virtuoso guitarist, and a scholar whose research involves the collecting of song materials, their editing into performance versions and the assembly of contextual songlore.
Martin Carthy possesses an unrivalled foundation in the English musical traditions, and has played a seminal role in introducing these materials to new audiences over the past forty years. He is without question one of the most inventive musicians of his generation, and is celebrated in his own field as a composer as much as a performer. He treats the English tradition as a resource or foundation for his own artistry, rather than an end in itself, and his repertory and style have been widely taken up in Britain and internationally. Above all, Martin Carthy is a musician’s musician. Original guitar accompaniments and vocal lines are rendered with an attention to timbre, tone and texture that is reminiscent of a master pianist executing the piano lines of Schubert’s Lieder.
As with many singers of his generation, Martin Carthy was a member of a teenage skiffle group, emulating the folk and bluegrass traditions of America, little appreciating that his native land was just as rich in its own music. A visit to Ewan MacColl’s Ballads and Blues Club, where he saw Sam Larner, the great traditional Norfolk singer, had a lasting effect on his musical direction. This first exposure to folk music came at a time when the future of traditional English music looked uncertain. His initial reaction to the haunting, subtle and complex melodies of the genre was to wonder how anyone could carry such a tune; yet within weeks he was performing, adapting, shaping and living this tradition.
By the early 1960s Martin Carthy was the resident musician at London’s Troubadour Club, where a young Bob Dylan was an occasional guest. He was impressed by Carthy’s version of “Lord Franklin” and used the tune and narrative style in his own work. Similarly, Paul Simon borrowed the Carthy arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” to create the massive hit for Simon and Garfunkel (though conveniently failing to acknowledge its source). It was about this time that he met up with The Watersons, influential fellow spirits who held court in Hull. He was later to marry Norma Waterson, widely regarded as one of England’s greatest living female singers, thereby firmly establishing folk’s first “royals”. In 1966 he teamed up with fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, redefining the dynamics between fiddle and guitar in a partnership that has endured to this day.
Throughout history each generation has shaped and changed the repertoire of folk music, and the transition from acoustic to electric happened for Martin Carthy when he joined Steeleye Span in 1970. A generation later, his daughter Eliza has made the same tradition known to the current world of popular music. Themes of traditional songs have often been about justice, love and the vicissitudes of life, so it was a short step from the “causes” of the past, as recorded in song, to the issues of the day. Martin Carthy, along with many others of his generation, actively participated in debates on disarmament (this was the era of the Aldermaston Marches), peace and social justice.
During his career Martin Carthy has been active in providing music for television and the theatre: first at the Royal Court, then at the National Theatre, and more recently for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions by Bill Alexander. Despite his legendary status and nearly 100 albums, he has remained loyal to folk clubs throughout the regions. Here he has found the immediacy that is the essence of the tradition – music straight from the mouth to the ear of the audience. The singer is the conduit of songs, many of which have been sung for several hundred years, blended with contemporary additions to the repertoire.
Chancellor, folk music is not a static museum piece, recorded and unchanging, however valuable the contributions of Cecil Sharp, Percy Grainger and Vaughan Williams in recording the old singers. Martin Carthy has rebuilt the big ballads out of mere snatches from these singers – for him, following tradition is “being dangerous”, not treating it as fragile or breakable. Indeed, it is fascinating to trace a song from the recordings of the “old singers”, through Martin Carthy, to the versions Eliza Carthy is performing today.
We honour at this congregation a musician and composer of rare quality and distinction, whose work has influenced a generation of performers and greatly enriched the British folk music heritage.
Chancellor, I present Martin Carthy as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.