Last updated November 2016
Martin Carthy is an English folk singer and guitarist who is widely considered to be one of the most significant figures to have emerged from British folk revival of the 1960s. Both as a singer and accompanist Carthy’s impact has undoubtedly stretched beyond folk music but it is within the British folk scene in particular that his influence has been most keenly felt over a career that has spanned more than fifty years.
His series of albums with fiddler Dave Swarbrick released between 1965 and 1969 set the benchmark for contemporary folk song accompaniment and adventurous instrumentation and helped to provide a template for the emergent folk rock movement’s nascent repertoire. Carthy himself was instrumental in the development of the folk rock sound through two separate tenures with the band Steeleye Span (1970-71 and 1978-79) and a brief period with the Albion Country Band (1973). He joined the influential unaccompanied vocal group The Watersons in 1973, marrying fellow group member Norma Waterson shortly thereafter, and developed a sporadic musical partnership with melodeon player John Kirkpatrick which ultimately led to the formation of the band Brass Monkey who were active from 1983 to 1987. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s Carthy continued to produce a series of influential solo albums and as a solo performer remained loyal to the British folk club scene within which he had initially developed his reputation.
Carthy re-established his musical partnership with Dave Swarbrick in 1988. The duo went on to record a number of albums of both new material and re-workings of their 1960s repertoire and toured extensively until Swarbrick’s death in early 2016. With the eventual dissolution of the Watersons as a regular touring group, Carthy formed Waterson:Carthy with his wife Norma and their daughter Eliza, who was emerging and an exceptional performer in her own right. This group went on to occupy an increasing proportion of Carthy’s time throughout the 1990s and beyond, releasing influential recordings and performing regularly on the festival and concert circuits. Norma Waterson no longer makes regular concert appearances but in 2014 Carthy recorded and album with Eliza and they now regularly tour as a duo.
Since the 1990s Carthy has played with a re-formed Brass Monkey, founded a short-lived trio with Chris Wood and Roger Wilson, performed on several Norma Waterson solo albums, reunited for a one-off Steeleye Span concert, toured and recorded with Swarbrick, Kirkpatrick and Roy Bailey in Band of Hope, played several tours with the ensemble Martins 4 and made numerous one-off guest appearances on stage and on record. Most recently his contributions have formed some of the core components of the recordings and live shows by the groundbreaking Imagined Village project. However, despite the relative scarcity of his solo album releases during this period, it is arguably still as a solo artist that Carthy continues to be best known and most widely revered. His solo albums are invariably met with critical praise and – still remaining loyal to the grass-roots folk scene but increasingly in demand at larger concert venues – he continues to tour extensively as a solo artist.
Martin Carthy in September 2011. Photo © Kevin Boyd