Early days – Family
I was brought up in Hampstead which was then not the wilderness of wealth and sophistication that it is today. My parents liked music, and my mother had been involved on the fringes of the first folk revival insofar as it touched upon her commitment as an active Christian Socialist in the thirties. They took music seriously and tended towards the high-brow although we all had records at home by people such as Leslie Sarony, Frank Crumit, Danny Kaye and Phil Harris. GF
My Aunt [Trudy] is a piano player – she started learning early on and she’s dah to give up. My father comes from the East End of London and he won a scholarship to the grammar school across Tower Bridge and in order for him to go to school, she had to go out to work – that was the way of it and she just accepted that. She played then and she plays now, and she’s a very good piano player too.
Trudy would come in on Christmas and birthdays and she’d play a bit when she’d got a couple inside her and it was always a bit shocking because she played popular tunes of the time, either from memory or from music and she’s a really energetic piano player. Later on I began to go for what my parents considered the more disreputable side of music and this was the first inkling, if you like. F2
Music at school
I did the standard music lessons at school, but we did have a pretty extraordinary music master whose name was Gerald Wheeler. He was a very young man and he was absolutely full of it – absolutely full of music and bursting at the seams with it and incredibly excited about it. He was one of those people who was actually able to communicate his excitement. He’d have a class full of working-class kids and they’d be all ready to giggle and by the end of it they weren’t laughing they were really taking part. He got our school choir and he drilled it into the most phenomenal shape, it was a really fabulous choir.
He introduced brass into the school orchestra and I was given a trombone to learn and I was really excited about it for all of three weeks, then I got fed-up with it. I was a chorister and that was because of him. I used to go from the choir on Sunday morning, I’d go home on my bike, have my Sunday dinner and then I’d dive off – by the time I was fourteen – down to Cy Laury’s jazz club for the Sunday afternoon sessions. F2
Early days – coffee bars / folk clubs
My father had a Hawaiian guitar on which somebody had fitted frets; it sat unused in a cupboard, and I was not allowed to play it, so I used to sneak it out of the house when I had a chance to learn something. My first good guitar was a ‘Julve’ which had nylon strings. I put light banjo strings on it to get the sound I wanted. I started playing in a coffee bar called The Highway … There was also the Ballads and Blues club at the Princess Louise, run by Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd. I found aou about this through Bert’s son Joe who had the skiffle group with the best repertoire in our school. GF
I couldn’t understand where Joe got his repertoire from. I kept asking him, ‘Where’re you getting all your songs?’ He said, ‘Oh, I get ‘em from my dad.’ ‘Who’s your dad?’ ‘Oh, he’s a singer,’ he’d say – he was very mysterious about it but he always had this fabulous repertoire.
So I went down to the Princess Louise one night, on a Sunday, and I heard Peggy Seeger … I have a memory of Alan Lomax being around but I think I just wanted him to be there and my memory has painted him in. There were all these people singing songs … one or two of them I recognised as being the originals of stuff that was in the Hit Parade, stuff like Cumberland Gap, stuff like Gambling Man. F2
I can remember when I first heard Sam Larner in 1957 or ‘58, it had a colossal effect on me, but the effect wasn’t felt until a long time afterwards. I look back on it all the time as being the reason why I got involved in this. It took me a long time to understand why, but he reached right inside and I was hooked … That evening had a lot to do with Ewan MacColl. Ewan MacColl had his plusses and his minuses, but when it came to it he was prepared to put his own ego aside. I saw it with my own eyes! he never sang a song himself all night – and he set about presenting Sam Larner to that audience, and he handed Sam Larner to the audience and the audience to Sam Larner, introduced the songs, played with him, made little kokes with him and they just had a little conversation on the stage. He was on from 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock. It was an astounding evening, and the coup de grace was when he got him to sing Henry Martin at the end, which was a wondeful tune which at the time made no sense to me at all. I went away completely bewildered but absolutely hooked. It was extraordinary. FR98
Libba Cotten/Bill Broonzy
I read of a case in one of the papers that Chris McDevitt had been taken to court successfully by paople who said that someone else had written Freight Train. That someone elses name didn’t registewr at the time, but I later found out that it was a woman called Elizabeth Cotten. In about 1958 or ‘59 I managed to get hold of a Folkways album called Negro Folk Songs and Tunes and this Freight Train was on it.
From the moment I heard Rock Island Line and was in one of the skiffle groups at school I’d started singing so that in the evenings, eventually, I forwent doing my homework and I’d go out to a coffee bar. I’d go with my guitar and, sort of, thrash away and sing. During the daytime I ws singing tenor in the school choir and then on Sundays I was singing soprano in the Savoy Chapel choir. I’d get there at ten o’clock and by the time the service came ’round at eleven-fifteen I’d got to my range, I could hit all the top Gs and top As. I think I left that choir just before my seventeenth birthday because I thought I was being very un-masculine, I didn’t think it was right that a seventeen year-old should still be singing soprano.
By this time I was very confused about singingbecause I was hearing all this wonderful music from Elizabeth Cotten and Big Bill Broonzy … and Big Bill Broonzy was the first person I ever heard play guitar excitingly and properly, it wasn’t just thrashing away, he played. He played with his fingers which, at that time, to play with your fingers was a far-off dream. F2
There was a lot of excitement around, there was a lot in the air. I used to play in this place called the Witches Cauldron and my hero at the time was Robin Hall. He used to talk about Jeannie Robertson and he also used to talk about this place called the Troubadour; ‘Oo, you really oughta go down the Troubadour, it’s a Saturday night, it’s late.’ I was still a bit young and I didn’t have any money and I could have got down to the Troubadour, but there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell that I would ever be able to get home ’cause it finished at two o’clock in the morning.
One night I did actually go down to the Troubadour and as I walked in the door I heard this really weird sound, and I looked and there was this man sitting down playing the bagpipes and I’d just never seen anything like this at all. It was Seamus Ennis … I sat and I watched him all night. He played the pipes, he played the whistle and he sang. All my choristers’ training was telling me that the way he was singing was all wrong, but I went home and he’d told me a whole lot of stories, all of which I’d remembered and having heard the Irish pipes for the first time, which just blew me clean out of my socks.
The Troubadour was one of the very few late night places around that people like me could go and play at and the thing about late night places was that musicians used to go and just be there after their gigs. A lot of the people who used to go down to the Troubadour were jazzers and that’s where I first ran up against Diz Dizley. Because of that I became more interested in jazz, up until then I’d been interested in what we called traditional jazz. As far as I was concerned, the folk scene had grown out of the skiffle boom and the skiffle boom was an adjunct of the jazz scene. So I think it was fairly natural that the two would maintain links for some time afterwards – it would have been nice if they’d maintained links all the time, but of course they haven’t, with one-or-two exceptions. F2
I joined a group called the Thameside Four [with] Marion Grey, Redd Sullivan and Pete Maynard. The breadth of repertoire was enormous. We’d do a lot of English traditional stuff, we’d do a lot of American stuff, a lot of stuff from various of the West Indies and bits of jazz and blues and a lot of gospel, ’cause Marion used to love singing jazz and used to do it very well.They were fairly heady days, people had wide-ranging repertoires – it was an interesting time. We used to have a session every week at the Troubadour on the Tuesday and a session at a pub called the King and Queen on a Friday. F2
I was 16-18 when I was becoming involved first. Life is a lot more complicated than it was then. Y’know, if you didn’t wear gray trousers you wore brown or black trousers. And if you didn’t have a pair of black shoes you had brown shoes. When the song Blue Suede Shoes came out I actually didn’t believe there was such a thing as blue shoes. I thought it was a joke because it was all monochrome then. FR87
First musical efforts
We thought we were wonderful. I recently heard a tape of me that I made back in 1958 or ‘60 and at the time I thought it was fantastic. It’s hysterical! The commitment and the energy is astounding but it’s all bullshit and no brains. Well, misplaced brains … I can remember being told in 1957 how rotten I was by all the jazzers, and how the whole thing was only going to last five minutes. But they were all arrogant buggers. FR87
When we all started and we were playing skiffle, everyone around fell about laughing and told us all the time how crap we were, but we just ignored them. We thought, ‘We’re not crap, we’re brilliant.’ We just carried on doing it, and we finally got brilliant. It just took a long time. FR98
We used to talk about music, things like Sovay and how I wanted to do Sovay. He was going on about what a great tune it was and how he’d been trying to get the Campbell’s to do it and how they wouldn’t. My repertoire and the repertoire he was interested in crossed over the whole time because he played a lot with Bert Lloyd and I used to love Bert’s repertoire. When I was making my first record the first thing I thought of was to get up half-a-dozen musicians and just have a good time in the studio. Then I thought, ‘Well, all the musicians I know have got absolutely nothing in common with the music that I want to play.’ I went in and started making the record. He came down the night before the session and he did a bit of rehearsing, worked out The Broomfield Hill. FR91
I’m not actually particulary crazy about guitar players as a general rule. Most of my favourite instrumentalists play other instruments, they play things like fiddles and pipes and whistles and flutes and, well anything really. I think that most of ny early life I was effected by directness. Any examples I took, any role models if you like, were people who spoke directly with the voice and guitar. When you hear Libba Cotton singing Freight Train, she’s tracing what she’s inging on the guitar, or tracing what she’s playing with her voice, whichever way you want to look at it. With Big Bill Broonzy you’ve got a similar kind of directness, but what he’s doing there is a question and answer thing – he sings a line then plays a line then sings a line then plays a line… With people like Mance Lipscomb, what he’s doing is actually following exactly what he’s singing with his guitar while he’s singing. I like that sort of directness and anything I’ve achieved – on the guitar – is thanks to people like Libba Cotton, Mance Lipscomb and Big Bill Broonzy and people like that who speak directly.
There’s a lot of people around, singing and playing, who introduce a lot of artifice into it – and I think I’ve probably done my fare share of that, or maybe even more of my fare share – but I think all the people I loved, even through that, were all people who were that direct and when I chose to sit down and listen to them and absorb the lessons was when things began to make sense for me properly on stage and on record. F2
In all the time I’ve been involved in this music there is one person who stands out as being quite extraordinary and an influence in a very indirect way – he would come and stand at your shoulder and maybe offer you a piece of music or a song. If you did something he thought was good he would ring you up or write you a little letter – and that’s Bert Lloyd. It was a sad day when he died, he was a very special, extraordinary man. F2
All of a sudden I had a big explosion of creativity in spring ‘69. I suddenly started doing Arthur McBride. Polly On The Shore I actually did in the studio. I’d never done it before – I’d been thinking about it a lot. I’d learnt it from Shirley Collins. I went in, stuck the capo on, shut my eyes, took a deep breath and did it. Seven Yellow Gypsies and Prince Heathen – and Arthur McBride to a certain extent – were really door-openers. It was the idea of playing a song like that.
I used to live in Hampstead and I’d gone to visit my parents. I went to this place called the Prompt Corner which was a coffee bar in South End Green. I met these people I hadn’t seen for years and this woman I sort of knew came in and sat opposite me. She said, ‘Good God! You’re a Gemini!’ And I said, ‘Yes I am.’ ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here drinking: you should be at home creating.’ So I got up and went home and sat down in the kitchen of my parents’ house and did Prince Heathen. I’d been thinking about it for ages but that pinned it down. FR91
Guitar: tunings and technique
Back in the 60s Davy Graham invented DADGAD and a lot of us siezed upon it and tried to use it and I couldn’t make any kind of sense of it at all. So I sat up a couple of nights and ended up by dropping the whole thing a fourth and shifting it one string over. So I ended up with EADEA and then I added an E on top and being a proper folky I did a drop-D. So I ended up with DADEAE. I then couldn’t sing in that key, so I dropped it a semi-toneand played like that for thirteen years.
I wanted to do a song that required the note of B a lot, so I tuned the top string right down to B and then, because I was having trouble with the key again, I dropped the whole thing, this time bt a whole tone. So I ended up with CGCDGA. The great advantage of DADEAE is that I could play in D and A. Well, the great advantage of this CGCDGA was that I could play in C, in D, in F, in G, in E minor and with a lot of hard work, in A minor.
I use tunes as a chance to cut loose – or if I play any modern songs I like to cut loose in the guitar. When I’m playing a traditional song I love to keep it absolutely bog-simple – simple as possible and just drive the narrative on as hard as I can. FG
I became very style conscious in the seventies and then became trapped in it and had to extricate myself from it. So to a certain extent [my change in style] is conscious, but then on the other hand, twenty years is a long time and I don’t think it would be possible to stay sounding the same. Physically I can’t sing as loud as I could in the 60s. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but it does mean I have to change the way I do things.
It was listening to and making [Sweet Wivelsfield] that made me realise that it had gone over the edge and something needed to be done. When you do something like that – when you’re actually caught in that trap – it’s quite hard to get out of. It takes a long time to reach that stage and then you’ve got to unpick the stitches very carfully ’cause you have to go on making a living. You can’t go and sit in the workshop or in an attic and unpick it all, you’ve got to try and do it all on the spot and it takes a long time.
But I’m happier now with the way things are and with the way I sing … I’m as happy as I’ll ever be, which isn’t particularly happy because I wish I had the physical strength I had in the 60s and the knowledge I’ve got now. I’ve just got a bit more suss about what singing is all about these days. Having said that, I’m no longer quite as sure about everything. KB
I only sing songs that I really want to sing. I don’t sing anything to please anyone in particular. I don’t find a song in a songbook and think, ‘This’ll be a good on, this’ll please that section of the audience, this’ll get ‘em going.’ No, I only sing songs that, in one way or another, move me. And that doesn’t mean to say they’re all deadly serious songs, I mean move you emotionally in any way – whether it be to laughter or to misery! KB
Songwriting: Company Policy
I’ve re-written a lot of songs, reconstructed ‘em, added little bits if there’ve been holes in them. When I wrote [Company Policy] it was something that I felt I had to do, partly because nobody else had written about it, or not enough people had written about it. It seemed to me shocking that there weren’t any songs about the Falklands around, so I started trying to write one. It took a long time, but eventually it came together. KB
On of the things that happened before this current revival of interest was a tremendous sagging in the popularity of the whole thing and clubs closing down everywhere and a general feeling of apathy/dispair. During that period I remember sitting down and thinking very hard about this and saying, ‘Okay, you’ve had it easy for twenty years or more, what about it? Are you really as interested in this as you were when you first started? Do you really love it that much? Do you really want to go on doing it? Or have you just been riding your luck?’ And I came to the conclusion that I did love it just as much and I was just about as excited and my attitude was the same as it was when I was seventeen. Thirty years have gone in-between, but my attitude is still the same. I’m still as excited, I still get as angry with people who get it wrong, I still get as irritated with people who mess about as I did then. KB
Chris Wood, Roger Wilson & Pete Morton
A fella from the RSC, one of the directors, rang up. He was doing this play about Cecil Sharp [‘Country Dancing’] and he asked me to put a band together and select songs and organise dancers and a choreographer and all the rest of it. Chris was one of the people I asked to join the band.I’d only seen him play fiddle once but you gat a feeling about people sometimes and I got a feeling about him.
He asked me why the hell I’d asked him and I told him because I’d seen him playing at the National Festival. He said, “I played crap there.” I said, “Well, yes that’s true” (laughs)… But you can see when somebody’s got it, when somebody’s good even if they’re playing badly and they’re just not in control at that moment. You can see that they’re fed-up about it and they know really and truly what they’re doing – even if it doesn’t show right then.
One of the things where people like Roger and Pete and Chris have it over us – me and my peers, if you like – is that they have a lot more information. They, at the age of twenty four are about five times the musicians we were at twenty four and I envy them that. KB
Apart from at the beginning, when I was working backstage – I’d just left school and went into theatre because I believed I was going to be the greatest actor that ever lived. Unfortunately the theatre world and I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on that… well that’s another story. All the theatre projects I’ve ever done since have been one-offs. Which is nice – that’s the way it has to be. Work comes and you do it and it’s sometimes not as interesting as it might be, but I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done half-a-dozen theatre things and only one of them has not come up to expectations and probably I was partly at fault there too. KB
‘Tradition’ vs. ‘Invention’
Ask your average English person about Morris dancing and they’ll fall about laughing. But actually present them with Bampton Morris or Shropshire Bedlams and they’ll go barmy. They love it. They’ll go barmy because there’s so much passion and invention there. And people don’t seem to understand that with tradition comes invention. It’s a vital part of it. Tradition isn’t like a block of stone that you’ve got to pass on to the next person. It’s a block of stone that you fashion and pass on to the next person who in turn must fashion it and fashion it. It has to be a continuous process. FR87
‘Finger in the ear’ singing
I don’t agree with this whole anti-finger-in-the-ear thing. I just think that’s an irrelevance. I find it profoundy silly, trite. If people want to put their hand over their ear, why the hell shouldn’t they? I saw Dusty Springfield do it! I saw Steve Marriot do it! I’ve seen Paul Young do it. You can hear yourself better. So the whole argument about whether you should or shouldn’t seems such an incredible waste of ink. They cut down trees to print that crap.
The stigma attached to it is largely generated by people who say there’s a stigma attached to it. I mean the whole pewter tankard thing I find quite funny because it’s true to say your weekender becomes instantly recognisable. You get this picture of the city gent coming home and changing out of the suit into the gear, donning the badge-covered hat and groovin’ out with a pewter tankard tied to his belt. It’s rather like people tea-dancing. If it gives them a charge I’m not going to stand there and take the piss out of them, but I do think that they’ve got to have a sense of homour about it. People should be allowed to do what they want and they do dress in uniform, dammit! FR87
Occupation: ‘Folk Singer’
I don’t like categories. Having said that I’m quite happy to call myself a folk singer. If someone asks me what I do for a living, that’s what I answer. If they wanna laugh – fine. But I feel a passion about what I do that I bet they don’t feel about what they do. FR87
The basic thing is going ’round folk clubs – that’s what it’s all about. All the other things are jam on the bread and butter, but the bread and butter remains necessary and enjoyable. I mean, I like bread and butter. You get the chance to earn your bread and butter in the States and in Canada. I’ve had the chance to earn it in Australia and New Zealand, India and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, Norway, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany – East and West, Spain – never been to Portugal, dammit! KB
I still enjoy folk clubs. Because I do like that old convention that there are residents, there are floor singers, some of whom are rotten but who are better next time and then it’s you and you’re right on top of the audience most of the time. I like folk clubs. I think it was a fantastic idea, and it had no fight to survive and it has. FR98
This sounds like a real pose – I was standing in Anchorage, Alaska airport looking at a nine-foot tall polar bear stuffed in a glass case and thinking, ‘I wonder what my headmaster who wanted to kick me out of school would think of me now.’ I could not possible have known in 1959 when I walked out of school that I would end up hawking my guitar around the world. I’m very lucky. If this is bread and butter, oh boy! Jam is theatre and bread and butter is going out to places like that. Fabulous! KB
English folk music overseas
They take it as very exotic. They treat it rather like we treat them or Ali Farka Toure and paople like that.That’s how they treat people like me. A lot of people know who I am. There’s a British folk scene in Australia and New Zealand and they know about all the British folk musicians. The British folk scene was very much a lead to the rest of Europe at one time in the mid-70s. So when we all used to go over there we all had a certain status already. KB
In the States it’s different. There are a certain number of people who might know who we all are, but in America when you go and do a gig in a small town you’ll get a hundred people there, ninety of whom have not the slightest idea what they’re gonna see. But Americans will take the chance. You say. “I really want this singer to come to my town,” so you ring up the agent and say, “I’ll put on the concert, I’ll put up the money.” And the person then puts up the money, runs around and does a lot of advertising, goes and plugs it loke mad on local radio and when people hear, “Oh, music coming to our town – lets go and see it.” And a hundred people will turn up. If you did that here, or in any town in England, people wouldn’t go – would they? But in the States they do because they’re interested in that sort of thing and they’re hungry for knowledge. There’s a certain kind of person in the States who is hungry for knowledge and hungry for anything that is different and they make a great audience.
There’s a certain complacency about the English. There’s still a pioneering spirit in America. People will up-sticks and go out into a new area and put down roots and start a comminity. They’re still doing it – people are settling just like they did in the covered wagons, they’re doing that in alaske now, starting communities. ‘Cause you can still do that thing in America, you can go out and stake a claim. So a group of you go out and do it in Alaska. KB
When I was making this record I definitely had a feeling that what I wanted to do was map out some things that had been important to me over the years. Clearly some of these things are not folk things … I was on tour with Swarb and we were doing a sound check. I just started to play it and he said, “You should do that,” and I thought, “Yeah, that’s right.” Also, it’s a complete one-off in Elvis’ life … To go from a song as good as that, and then what else did he do? He ended up in fucking Blue Hawaii. What a stupid bastard. He went on holiday for the rest of his life, musically.FR98
Martin Carthy quotes extracted from the following sources:
GF: ‘A Guitar In Folk Music’, New Punchbowl Music, 1987
FR87: Folk Roots 53, November 1987
KB: Interview with Kevin Boyd, 2 June 1988
F2: BBC ‘Folk On Two’ interview, circa October 1988
FR91: Folk Roots 94, April 1991
FG: ‘British Fingerstyle Guitar’, video 1993
FR98: Folk Roots 186, December 1998