The Carthy Chronicles

Reflections, Comments and Reviews

Here’s a summary of my own initial reactions to The Carthy Chronicles set written within a day or so of purchase and after no more than two or three complete listens through. Reading this almost ten years later I wouldn’t necessarily make all the same choices now but I think this was an honest first reaction to what was an overwhelming amount of new material at the time.

This is followed by a brief exchange between me and Carthy Chronicles producer/compiler Nigel Schofield which took place via email shortly after the set was released and a couple of weeks after I launched the first version of this website in 2001.

Finally, there are a few contemporary press reviews of the Chronicles set which offer a bit more context and a lot more detail than my brief reflections.

“Six of the Best”: Half a dozen reasons for putting Carthy Chronicles at the top of your shopping list.

Prince Heathen (John Peel Show session, 1973)
This Carthy/Swarbrick classic (originally on the album of the same name) was recently remade as a solo effort on Signs Of Life. A song that has rarely been absent from Carthy’s repertoire and which, in this early solo reading, loses none of its power to provoke. Indeed, this rare session track is arguably more powerful than any previously released version.

Lovely Joan (1983 with John Kirkpatrick & Howard Evans)
Great live version of this well-known revival classic. This recording revisits the box ‘n’ brass arrangement of Because It’s There. Here though, taken at a more easy-going pace and with an excellent Carthy vocal, the proto-Monkeys manage to breathe fresh life into this familiar story. Brilliant!

Bows Of London (Live in 1991)
Peter Bellamy’s brutally sparse live recording captures a rare solo outing for this version of Two Sisters, first heard with Swarbrick’s fiddle accompanyment on Life & Limb. If I had to choose one high point of the whole Chronicles project, then I’d nominate this. An astonishing recording.

Monday Morning (Live in 1974)
Second overall to Bows Of London by my reckoning. Cyril Tawney’s workers’ lament is, in this slightly distorted – but somehow better for it – live recording, a real revelation. Previously unheard, MC’s unaccompanied arrangement would have fitted seamlessly into any of his early 70s albums.

ANC Song (Blue Murder, live in 1987)
The only release so far of live recordings made during a brief, but memorable series of show for the eight-piece combination of The Watersons and Swan Arcade. We should hear more of this stuff.

Rivers Of Babylon (from “Songs from Hallelujah” 1966)
It ain’t quite Boney-M, but this rare TV performance is stunning in its simplicity.

Farewell, Farewell (original take from Richard Thompson tribute: Beat The Retreat)
Simply stunning. This solo guitar/vocal take (the previously released version had Maddy Prior’s backing vocals overdubbed) showcases Carthy’s understated guitar-work and one of his best vocals in years.

(I know that makes seven, but who’s counting?)

Inevitably, the 83 tracks on Carthy Chronicles reveal a few of MC’s less-distinguished moments. Here’s my choice of three tracks that should have stayed in the archives.

Wimoweh (from “The Thamesiders & Davey Graham” ep)
It might be MC’s earliest official release, but this (thankfully brief) extract jars with most of the other, excellent selections.

Rave On (Steeleye Span single 1971)
There are probably half a dozen Steeleye completists who’d sell their grannies to get their hands on this, the original single version of the oft-anthologised Buddy Holly cover. The rest of us should stick with the ‘unoriginal’, but widely available alternate version.

Sovay (Live in 2000 with Dave Swarbrick)
They’ve been playing this together for 35 years and it continues to be one of their signature songs. So you’d have thought someone could have scraped together a better recording than this tinny, straight-from-the-desk, Cropredy version. Disappointing.

I was delighted to find a message from Nigel Schofield (compiler/producer of The Carthy Chronicles) in the CarthyOnline guestbook. I took this as a good opportunity to quiz him on his own reactions to the Chronicles. The following exchange took place on 11 April 2001

KB: It would be interesting to know your own views on the project now that it’s completed and released. Are you happy with the set as a whole? Any regrets about stuff you couldn’t get hold of/wasn’t good enough quality? Do you now have a life again? etc… (And when’s Chronicles 2 out?)

NS: The Carthy Chronicles has been a couple of years of focussed effort and the best part of a lifetime listening to Martin’s music.

There was actually nothing that we desperately sought to include but couldn’t get hold of – a couple of interesting live recordings proved to be of insufficiently good quality to be usable, which is somewhat disappointing.

A life back? Well there’s all the questions and responses and the publicity tie-ins – the 60th birthday concerts, Old Songs festival in the US etc … and finalising the CD-ROM material, plus later the website to update.

And new projects are beginning … Free Reed’s 25th anniversary releases … a John Kirkpatrick box (on which Martin will of course feature) … very likely a Steeleye Span set .. and we are currently negotiating with some other big names.

Chronicles 2 – well maybe 60 years hence? Actually, other branches of the story are taken up by David Suff’s forthcoming Watersons set … and the Steeleye set also, of course. But the aim was to make Chronicles definitive and judging from the reviews to date I guess we just about did that.

Thanks to Nigel for taking the time to reply to me.

Kevin Boyd 2001


Reviews:

Mojo Magazine 89, April 2001
His wife, Norma Waterson, attests that Martin Carthy is first and foremost “a storyteller – and he believes 100 per cent in what he does”. He’s also a fastidious champion of English traditional music, a man with an awesome memory for biographical detail (with Ken Hunt’s two-volume epic in the pipeline), and an individual whose abject distaste for ‘the cult of personality’ has kept him blissfully walled within the cloisters of folk and free from the remotest possibility of selling any more than a few thousand of any record he makes.

As Colin Irwin’s wonderfully pithy booklet essay underlines in its opening paragraph, self-congratulation is anathema to the man. The very fact that this beautifully produced set exists at all is testament to the persuasive powers of the Free Reed team and to Carthy’s recent recognition that the celebration of one’s work – be it last year’s MBE or this superbly presented retrospective – does not necessarily equate to a trumpet-blowing sell-out. Simply, his time in the sun has come, and done so in a format the modern music connoisseur demands: a box.

An enigma in so many ways, one of Martin’s more obvious curiosities as a guitarist is an almost total avoidance of listening to other guitarists. That said, he did cancel a gig in 1972 to watch a Mahavishnu Orchestra TV concert and, as quoted in the notes here, regards Pete Townshend as ‘the best rhythm guitar player in the world’. The truth is that Carthy is up there with Townshend and John McLaughlin, and with others like Jeff Beck, Bert Jansch and Nic Jones, as a unique, hugely innovative stylist whose influence in his chosen field has been incalculable. And he has sustained his musical imagination and energy over 43 years, performing along the way on a mind-boggling array of releases as soloist, band member (Steeleye Span, Albion Band, The Watersons, etc) or guest player – some of these records so obscure that even the diehards, whose laudable attempt at a full discography is one of many delightful appendages here, can’t be sure of the titles or contents.

Compiler Nigel Schofield tackles the Gordian knot of Carthy’s career thematically rather than chronologically, making each CD a delightful series of surprises. Characterful TV spots and amateur live recordings from the mid-’60s (including a performance of one traditional song five years ahead of the normally cited source recording) rub shoulders with electric prog-folk studio epics, Peel sessions, multi-part a cappella workouts, stunning time-signature trickery with occasional duo partner Dave Swarbrick, and oddball-but-engaging experiments with brass sections.

Aside from a generous array of rare, unreleased or alternate version tracks, all the solo albums proper are represented, and any temptation to make this merely a rag-bag of rarities-for-the-sake-of-it is judiciously avoided. Instead, this is both a triumph in the art of the box set and a joy to listen to. Martin Carthy is a giant in British music of the rock era, in its broadest form, and this sterling retrospective will intrigue, thrill and delight anyone fascinated by what lies at the edges of that map.
Reviewed by Colin Harper

Martin Carthy talks to Colin Harper.
So, you’re suddenly presented with a box of your life’s work to approve – any pleasant surprises, and anything so awful you exercised a veto?

“There was an unreleased EP I made for Topic before my first album and thank God they’ve lost the tape! Actually I didn’t veto anything. I’m particularly pleased they were able to find the original solo mix of Farewell, Farewell, which I’d recorded for a Richard Thompson tribute album [Beat The Retreat, 1991]. It appeared on that album with vocal overdubs by Maddy Prior, but I preferred it without. The one track they turned up which I would love to have had on was a recording of the only time I ever sang The Great Valerio [another Richard Thompson song] in public. But the recording was such lousy quality it couldn’t be rescued – a shame.”

You were contemporary with the likes of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davy Graham but you were never really part of that scene.

“I probably thought of myself as being different from those people. I did love Bert, John and Davy and I loved playing, but I was never terribly interested in that guitar-centric stuff. I loved the guitar but I also loved songs, and my particular love was English traditional songs.”

Last year an MBE, this year a box set – any plans for retiring?

“No, I don’t want to retire! What would I do?”

Q Magazine June 2001****
Whether it’s just him and his guitar or the multitude of joint ventures, you shudder to think what shape traditional English music might be in were it not for the quietly evangelical presence of Martin Carthy over the past four decades. With 83 tracks, a copiously illustrated booklet, poster and Pete Frame family tree, The Carthy Chronicles is not just a fitting tribute but a treasure trove for fans too, with a host of rare recordings (check out the Ballad Of Alfie Hinds from the pilot to a 1963 TV show called Hullabaloo) to complement such perennials as Famous Flower Of Serving Men and Lord Franklin. Why can’t all box sets be like this?
Reviewed by Peter Kane

The Living Tradition 2001
Almost everybody will have some tale to tell about Martin’s influence on their involvement with folk music. Mine is Martin Carthy’s ‘Second Album’, it was the first folk LP that I ever bought. Later I sent it up to my girlfriend in Scotland and now Heather Heywood freely credits Martin’s influence on her approach to traditional songs. So how can anyone approach a review of an album project like this one with any sense of impartiality? The answer is you can’t, nor do you need to, for this boxed set is a piece of musical history spanning thirty-five years or more years of the British Folk revival. This music is part of us all and I suggest that you listen, enjoy it and celebrate along with a musical giant as he approaches his 60th birthday.

The four CD set comes in a tall box with two pairs of CDs sitting in a tray. The 96 page booklet is really better described as a paperback book with an extensive musical and family biography of Martin together with comprehensive notes to all the songs. There is also a poster with a family tree showing just how far Martin’s musical web spread.

For anybody with a reasonably comprehensive collection of Carthy recordings, there is still much of interest in the set. I have always been fond of compilations provided that they have been well put together. ‘Best of’ samplers rarely have a similar appeal. Don’t let me give you the idea that these are compilation CDs in the form of a series of tracks from other CDs. An enormous amount of effort has been taken to seek out live recordings from clubs, concerts and radio broadcasts and these CDs have been lovingly put together. Each one is a satisfying mixture that will grace your CD player for a long time. Neither is this set merely a reference work to keep on the shelf, I guarantee you will play the CDs over and over again, and if you do refer to it, you will refer to it with pleasure.

Live versions of songs are often chosen over previously released tracks and there are several cuts from very early albums with The Thamesiders and the Three City Four. A new one on me was a track from a live album by Basque folk band, Oskorri, who, in acknowledgement of his influence on their music, invited Martin to join them to celebrate their 25 years as a band. (Where can I hear more?) There is a wonderful sequence with related songs starting with, ‘The Wren’, ‘The King’ and ‘Joy Health Love and Peace’ from Carthy & Swarbrick, Steeleye Span and The Watersons . and I am still only listening through one of the CDs, ‘Carthy in Company’. In total there are 83 tracks and over five hours of music.

The only problem I see with the set is where to keep it. It doesn’t fit on the nice neat rows of CDs on the shelves, but more than shape, there is currently nothing else from the folk scene to match it for its comprehensive coverage of a persons life in music. The answer again may come from the Free Reed stable as they develop the series under the title of ‘Revival Masters’. Their Dransfields retrospective was a master stroke, their Peter Bellamy tribute built on that platform, and now The Carthy Chronicles sets a new standard.
Pete Heywood

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