1998 : Signs Of Life

Martin Carthy

01 : New York Mine Disaster, 1941
02 : Georgie
03 : Sir Patrick Spens
04 : The Deserter
05 : Heartbreak Hotel
06 : The Bonny Hind
07 : The Wife of Usher’s Well
08 : John Parfit
09 : Barbary Ellen
10 : Hong Kong Blues
11 : The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
12 : Prince Heathen
13 : Jim Jones in Botany Bay

First released on CD in the UK 1998 by Topic Records TSCD503

Martin Carthy: guitar, vocals
Eliza Carthy: fiddle on New York Mine Disaster, 1941; Sir Patrick Spens; The Wife of Usher’s Well; Barbary Ellen
Chris Parkinson: harmonica on Hong Kong Blues

Recorded and mixed at Panda Sound, Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire.
Engineered by Olly Knight.
Produced by Martin Carthy & Olly Knight.
Mixed by Martin Carthy, Olly Knight & Tony Eagle.

Photography by Tom Howard.
Digital Graphic Design by John Haxby, Edinburgh.

All tracks Traditional, arr. Martin Carthy except:
01: Barry Gibb / Maurice Gibb
05: Mae Axton / Tommy Durden / Elvis Presley
08: James Flynn
10: Hoagie Carmichael
11: Bob Dylan

Sleeve Notes:

Hamish Henderson, poet, songwriter, collector, doyen of the School of Scottish Studies, champion of humanity in general and imagination in particular, wrote in the ’60s that the folk revival depended for its continued existence on its capacity to throw up fresh thinkers. At the risk of having an immediate degree conferred on me from the university of the bleedin’ obvious, I’ll say that doesn’t apply simply to folkies. A pretty good illustration of the way the craft of songwriting has broadened as ordinary people write about extra-ordinary events is the Bee Gees’ song New York Mine Disaster, 1941 which, whether or not it refers to an actual event, is a great piece of collective imagination. Similar forces are at work among the many gypsy singers and musicians recorded by Mike Yates in the past twenty or thirty years. Georgie is a song that I have known for forty years, but I was taken completely unawares when I heard it sung by Levi Smith in the ’70s, and it’s the basis of what I sing here. The experience was similar to hearing the Yarmouth fisherman Sam Larner in the 1950’s, which confronted everything I had thought made a musical sense, and changed it. It was when I was about seven or eight that my mother first showed me Sir Patrick Spens, and it was many years before I understood thet these things are supposed to be sung. The first tune I heard was from Ewan McColl and subsequently others from Fairport and the great and marvellously inventive Nic Jones, who dug out what I think is the best tune to carry that song, and which I sing here. Nic recorded it on his first album which lies, along with 80% of his recorded ouput and a very large chunk of the work of other ’70s musicians in a record company’s mow. Or should that be mausoleum? Either way, it’s sad that such spring heeled guitar playing and singing should lie unheard.

When I first learned The Deserter, from the Penguin Anthology of War Poetry, with a marvellous tune, I had, eventually, to stop singing it because of its last verse, which is dumb enough to rank with the idiotic and totally inappropriate last verse of Prince Heathen as printed in F.J. Child #104. On both occasions one is presented with a happy ending and, while learning the latter in 1969 found me without qualms in changing something I thought daft, 1961 found me utterly reluctant to do the deed and change the former. Wiggy Smith to the rescue. Another of Mike Yates’ recordings of English Gypsies reveals a singer (Wiggy himself) of real wit and passion, with a last verse to the song which lifts it way out of the ordinary. I don’t know who it is effecting these rewrites of last verses (I suspect church influence somewhere, myself) but I do wish that they wouldn’t. It would save the rest of us so much trouble.

What started me learning songs was buying two 78s on the same day. The Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan and Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley. Lonnie made me want to play the guitar, though I never learned the song, but Heartbreak Hotel was the first song I ever learned from a record and I often wondered at the fact that, for me, Elvis never recorded as good a song subsequently. Later on, I found out that it was written by a woman called Mae Axton and felt somehow justified because she was (is) the mother of Hoyt Axton, a singer and writer I liked a lot (still do). I also felt that, if we must have royalty, the king’s crown always fitted Chuck Berry better. Or Little Richard. Speaking of heartbreak, I got The Bonny Hind from June Tabor, who is not in the least close-fisted with her songs, about 25 years ago, but decided to try a different tune. This one is more usually sung to the Duke of Marlborough, and it sits with the song easily and feelingly, I think. A huge tragedy told in such matter-of-fact terms as to make you ache all over. The matter-of-fact is a cloak donned by many songs the better to carry such ideas. Similarly, certain conventions are there in song, the better to help the subject of the song to cope with things like dead. Such as the notion fuelling The Wife of Usher’s Well, that one should mourn the dead for one year and one day and then let go, or else the dead will return – but then, sometimes such things make not a scrap of difference to the plummeting, consuming grief that the wife feels. The tune is Basque and bent slightly from that taught to me by Ruper Ordorika and Bixente Martinez of Huri Truku and it’s called Bakarrik Aurkitzen Naz. Thank you.

It was a consuming rage, felt by James Flynn, of the Flynn Brothers, at the events related in John Parfit, that led to the writing of the song, events which took place at the Duke of Norfolk’s estates in Yorkshire in 1978. Nothing was done about it at the time, nor has anything been done since. James and his brothers sing it slightly different (Oh, all right, I changed it a bit) and in great harmony. I think that I’ve known Barbary Ellen all my life. The song I learned was very short and gave you nothing of her anger at being treated with such disdain and how that translates to the comtempt with which she treats his rather late declarations of lurve… The tune is from the Shropshire gypsy, Samson Price.

My parents were Hoagie Carmicheal fans and I can’t begin to tell you how many points I got when I sang them The Old Music Master one day. But one of their favourites was Hong Kong Blues and the only person I knew who knew any of it was Marion Gray when we worked together in the Thameside Four. It was around that time that Bob Dylan first appeared on the London club scene. When he returned in 1964, he did a couple of TV gigs and a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, which is etched in fire on the memories of all who were there. He, quite simply and very quietly, tore the place apart. During the evening he sang The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and set the place alight. It was proof, if there were needed, of the power of narrative song in the hands of a real master. I don’t believe that he has lost any of his power in the intervening years, as a singer or as a writer, and he remains by far the bravest of the lot, prepared to risk everything, including – and maybe especially – his reputation. (What happened, by the way, to William Zanzinger?)

It’s always been a source of bewilderment to much of humanity as to why people behave in such a disgusting way to other people, and that’s why there are songs like Prince Heathen. The day I came across that song was a day which shook my world, and, when I read what I still think is the stupidest last verse in songdom, I was raging. When I finally calmed down and was able to hear the siren voice in my head, which had been crooning, “Ditch it, for god’s sake, ditch it”, I did just that, and was left with, what I still think after thirty years, is one of the very greatest songs in the entire canon. A pillow on which to rest your weary head it ain’t, but an exposition and and affirmation of Firmness in the Truth it surely is. Push it to the brink and you’ll reveal a hero. She is, and so is the man who swears never to bow the knee. I always thought that Jim Jones was an English as well as an Australian song, but it didn’t thake that many conversations with snarling Melbourne chums to convince me otherwise. It really is a mighty song. Anon strikes again.
Martin Carthy, 1998


Mojo Magazine December 1998
First solo album in 10 years by the crown prince turned elder statesman of the English folk revival, taking time out from Waterson-Brass Monkey duties to tackle Dylan, Elvis and The Bee Gees.

Anticipation of what is now a rare solo excursion for the mainman of English folk song has scarcely been dissipated by the prodigious activities of his wife and daughter. For three decades, Martin Carthy MBE has set the music’s benchmark both as guitarist and singer, but perhaps even more importantly as an unwaveringly committed champion of traditional music and the spirit of the heroic, unsung source-singers who preserved it for posterity.

A veteran he may now be but his passion is undimmed, his integrity unquestionable and his love of the song form, and desire to enrich its growth, is seemingly unquenchable. Tackling Heartbreak Hotel and recreating the melancholy country blues you fondly imagine Hoyt Axton’s mum originally had in mind when she wrote it, may seem a radical departure, but it makes perfect sense in the context of a song cycle representing a thematic guide to Carthy’s long musical journey.

Most startling is not the extraordinary range of material he entertains, but the dramatic change in the tone, phrasing and attitude of his singing. The great vocal stylist who virtually shaped and defined the art of revival singing has now almost completely abandoned the mind-boggling note-bending and rich, booming delivery which became his trademark. Its most notable transformation comes with his return to Prince Heathen, an epic ballad of soaring emotions and vocal demands that became a cornerstone of his illustrious original partnership with Dave Swarbrick. Three decades later, the heat and vehemence of its content is replaced by a vocal of measured melancholy, itself symptomatic of a strikingly more intimate approach, in which words and emotions are nursed where once they were driven.

Part conscious design and perhaps part the natural consequence of time’s advance, it invests the album with an unexpected sense of warmth, freshness and informality, enhanced by the simplicity of the production and arrangements that arrive without fanfare or inessential trimmings. Apart from Martin’s own guitar work – as awe-inspiring as ever – Eliza Carthy provides most of the relevant accompaniment with her sparing fiddle, but all is geared to the clarity of the story-telling. This is most clearly demonstrated in the stunning reading of The Bee Gees’ first hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941, an object lesson in the notion that less is more.

In the same understated mood, Carthy turns a startling trilogy of very different songs of contrasting style and culture into collective symbols of downtrodden sorrow and injustice. Barbary Ellen is a subtle masterpiece of anguish; Hoagy Carmichael’s Hong Kong Blues benefits from Chris Parkinson’s lively harmonica; and, best of all, Dylan’s Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll confirms the bare strength of music and words.

Human emotions, further effectively demonstrated in the ballads The Wife Of Usher’s Well, Georgie and The Bonny Hind, are rarely delivered with such guile and profundity. The man is still setting the standards…
Reviewed by Colin Irwin

Q Magazine January 1999****
Even if in a moment of temptation Paul Simon failed to acknowledge Martin Carthy’s role – and arrangement – in Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair, Dylan’s overt, repeated recognition of Carthy outweighed Simon’s omission. Without kow-towing to the Carthy dynastic legend, he wins hands down as the best of his class. Bar one unconvincing lapse – Heartbreak Hotel – Signs Of Life presents Carthy in magisterial form. The opener may be by those doyens of the folk revival, The Bee Gees, but New York Mining Disaster, 1941 sets the tone of great storytelling in song. Sir Patrick Spens, Hong Kong Blues, Dylan’s The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll and Prince Heathen may be of mixed bloodlines but Carthy unites them gloriously.
Reviewed by Ken Hunt

Fatea Magazine
Mr Carthy MBE is one of British music’s legends. He may not be in the young minds that adore Robbie Williams but to those who extend their musical tastes beyond the charts, Carthy is an institution. You may not even enjoy his music or be particularly aware of what he’s currently up to, but you know that even if he never strummed another string, he’s done it and been there. An innovator and archivist. Can the two coexist?

SIGNS OF LIFE includes both elements of the man, a rendering of the Gibb brothers NEW YORK MINE DISASTER, 1941 is included. It’s terrific. Not far behind is Dylan’s early THE LONESOME DEATH OF HATTIE CARROLL and Hoagy Carmichael’s HONG KONG BLUES and Elvis Presley’s HEARTBREAK HOTEL, for heaven’s sake!

He’s squuezed in traditional tunes like THE WIFE OF USHER’S WELL and THE DESERTER. Remarkably this is his first solo album in ten years. I was astonished by this fact. Of course family collaborations have filled the intervening years. The man is an inspiration and benchmark and it’s easy to forget to be analytical and critical about his music in light of his output and influence. But he does what he does well and this album is a fine Carthy album, no question.
Reviewed by Kevin Ring


One Response to 1998 : Signs Of Life

  1. […] “Right Of Passage” is represented by three tracks and we get two each from “Signs Of Life” (1998) and “Waiting For Angels” (2004). “The Dominion Of The Sword” […]

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