“Guitar” Vol. 4 No. 8, March 1976
Cover: Martin Carthy picture by George Clinton. Background shows a broadsheet music seller in the 1890s.
It being some time since we had a natter (Martin Carthy graced the pages of issue 1), and because you can’t talk just guitar with Martin, a little of our conversation naturally reflected the vicissitudes and anxieties of the times; therefore we offer no apology for any yeasty comments that might at first glance appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with folk music.
Martin’s playing has taken on intriguing changes too. Basically his accompaniments consist of very rhythmic melody lines with the thumb often crossing over to play the 1st string. The thumb (with steel thumb pick) is used in conjunction with vigorous left hand ligados – or snaps – so that the effect is drum-like (the note almost played twice). A typical accompaniment in 6/8 time has the fingers playing a highly ornamented melody line on the treble strings with the thumb playing the bass strings for the 1st and 4th beats and the melody on the 3rd and 6th beats. Martin uses light medium gauge strings.
Martin first took up my pet grouse about rock musicians’ (apparent) lack of the same degree of zeal in learning to sing as in playing their instruments.
I think a lot of English rock singers – for our purposes let’s include pop and talk about them together – are in a wilderness. They’re playign an English music but trying to sing in what is fundamentally an American way, a black American way as well. It’s OK. Some of them are very good at it, Paul Rogers, who’s a tremendous and really convincing blues singer, or a great stylist like Freddy Mercury. People like that are great. But I think you’re right, a of of them don’t know what to do – at least that’s the feeling I get – there is this tendency to think ‘Well, we’re all playing this great music’, and ‘Oh well, we’ll do a bit of singing too’. It can be alright, but it’s a bit limiting I think – a bit limiting for them.
But isn’t there a case for singing in an idiom – blues for example?
I suppose so. I don’t want to be too definite about it because there are some really great English blues singers, like Paul Rogers.
You seem to take a lot of care in your own singing.
Not as much as some. Nic Jones, for instance, or Peter Bellamy. They’re much more careful, more florid. They do much more than I do, and it’s very, very stylish. I suppose I’m stylish, but Nic is a much more ornate singer.
Have you dropped the use of vernacular?
I don’t very often sing in dialect, not these days. I have done, but now I tend to avoid it. What you would call vernacular is me acquiring a sort of all-purpose folk accent which I used to affect. When I sang in country style, I did a country style, and I stopped using it, maybe I wasn’t very good at it, and I think it’s been ironing itself out over the years. I don’t think Nic uses vernacular either. Nic sticks to, well, English. Obviously his singing voice isn’t the same as his speaking voice; I mean, if he came up to you and spoke to you in his singing voice, you’d fall about with laughter.
Of course, your jolly old farmer sounds different from the sailor in Ship In Distress, so there’s the character of the song. But it’s something I don’t think about too much – the song itself – you are singing the song, and the song should take over. I’m of the school of thought that believes in the song not the singer – there are people who believe the other way around. I was Vera Lynn being interviewed on the tele and the woman was saying how she phrased and did this and that, and Vera Lynn in her Dame Vera Lynn was said bullshit. I’m a song person, it’s the song that matters, all the way down the line.
It’s just that nowadays there are other considerations, I suppose. People think about their way of doing things, about me, about my personality, my creative instinct. Your creative instinct will come out if you sing, there’s no stopping it, because you can’t be anyone else but you. There’s no sense in sitting in a chair waiting for it to happen.
There are some songs, of course, that you have to do with your tongue firmly in your cheek – like The Bonny Black Hare – because if you sing them any other way it becomes either very earnest or it becomes lewd. And The Bonny Black Hare is a not a lewd song; it’s a rude song, a basic, honest song. Some people sing it as a great raucous shout-up – that I find depressing. But no one can teach you how to sing a folk song, you have to use your judgement, and, er, keep your head I suppose, keep your cool.
Then again there are songs that are, on the face of it, quite dramatic, yet are, in fact, quite funny. There are some very serious songs indeed that right in the middle have something quite ludicrous, a piece of real idiocy which give you a chance to take a breath, and then you get on with the song again. Little Musgrave has a part like that in – a perfect example. She casts a glad-eye on Little Musgrave, takes him back to her little summer house, and they’re crawling all over each other al night, and then her page boy runs off and tells her husband and there’s this great scene where he batters on the door, beats his way in, stands over him and says. ‘Right, what about it?’ and Little Musgrave has this little line ‘I would three hundred pounds that I was on yonder plain’. And then, when the husband has killed Musgrave, then his own wife, he asks his men why they didn’t stop him! And that’s funny too.
How did you see Springhill Mining Disaster?
I thought of it as a song about people under ground. And people getting buried, or suffocated, or being brought out alive fro two miles down. I only went down anything like a mine, and I turned and walked out before I got fifty feet down. That was a lead mine in Derbyshire. Have you ever been down a mine without any light at all? I never knew what blackness was until I went down there. It was incredible. real blackness where you held out your hand that far, and you don’t know it was there… you could feel it on the end of your nose but you couldn’t see it. It’s the natural fears that that make a song like that come to life., you can’t help identifying with them. That’s got an intro that is a little chord rundown. It starts of with a pedal in an A, and an octave, using these chords that go down, pedaling the A, because I thought of it all as descending, as going down. You see, you decide what the song is about and if you’re wrong it becomes known to you during the course of the song that you are wrong, and you have to find another approach so that the song makes sense.
Are you a political person?
In many ways yes, I suppose I’m a left winger. But I think of politics more in terms of people getting along with one another, of people living together. For me a folk song is political in that it’s full of lessons. It teaches people how to live together. It shows people living together – it shows conflict, and that’s political. It can’t be party political because there are plenty of right wingers who sing folk songs.
Yes, one recalls the ballads of the errant knight.
That’s right, those stories speak to everyone. But I must say that I did go through a time when I wondered how the hell a person who sang folk songs could be anything but a socialist. Getting back to ballads, Beauty and the Beast is a very political story, though a lot has been changed from the story we have – a lot of nastiness. It’s much more rough and ready, not so much of the knight errant as people are led to believe. It’s not a question of her kissing him, she has to go to bed with him. And she has to undergo all sorts of horrible ordeals. Oh yes, it’s a story about trial by ordeal almost. She has to go through a set or ordeals. In the English story the sexes are reversed and she is the beast and he has to go through a set of ordeals before he can come out at the other end and show that he’s fit to receive and give love. On the principle that you are only fit to give if you are fit to receive. People didn’t just say ‘Oh, you must go and pluck out a flower from the middle of a quicksand’. It as much more basic and hairy than that. Having to make love to a monster for example – all quite creepy.
You left Steeleye Span because you felt alienated from people. Is that the reason you go to Ireland?
Yes. I go there basically because nobody else will. Rory Gallagher will go over and do a concert a couple of times a year but, generally, people will just not go over. I go because thousands of people in the middle are being starved to death of music and experience like that, because they are supposed to be either on the one side or the other. Everybody thinks that Ireland is split right down the middle, when the fct is that there are thousands and thousands of people right in the middle who just want to live. That’s why I go.
I go over periodically and sing in both the North and South. The last time I wnt I sang in Buncrana which is in county Donegal, just across the border from Londonderry. Now there you are, see – the people from Derry city all came out to that pub in Buncrana. They go there. It’s ten mile up the road, it’s in the Republic, and a good proportion of the audience came from Derry city. Now I’d imagined that Derry city was all a mass of barbed wire, but there was no trouble there until about two months ago.
Besides, you are driven everywhere. They know that it’s all right, that you can go about. But you have to be careful, you don’t do anything silly. But it’s not like if you walk out into the street somebody’s going to run up to you and stick a bomb down your trousers – it’s not like that at all. They pick you up from your hotel, take you to the gig. After the gig they take you back to your hotel. You’re checked out. You’re standing there with your guitar, looking around whilst somebody rings the doorbell, and you think they’re taking a long time to answer, but they’re standing behind the glass checking you out. You’re let in, you go to bed, you wake up in the morning and look out of the window, and there’s just people carrying on. Cars are going up and down, people carrying their shopping, people riding bicycles – jut like anywhere. Yet over here you can’t imagine that a Protestant in Belfast can pas a Catholic without hitting him on the head. There’s an awful lot of politics played that you or I don’t know about.
Can we talk about the change in your style of guitar playing? – what some people call your John Blunt style?
I’ve been a little single-minded over the last couple of years and I think in a way that I’m beginning to pay for it because I’ve forgotten how to do certain things. You see, I started to work from the premise that music is basically dance music, so that I wanted to be able to play the guitar in such a way that I would want to dance. It’s obviously not true that all music is dance music, but there is a whole lot that is, and I went wholeheartedly into that, which means that I now find it more difficult to play the freer things. It did serve a purpose in that I can now do things that I couldn’t before, but I would now also like to be able to do some of the things I could do before and can’t do now. There’s plenty of time though; it just means that I’ll have to learn to do it again. You can only relearn with songs; like, a song you suddenly find and you want to accompany it and you can’t do it that way so you have to wait for something to happen spontaneously that will enable you to do it. But as to my accompaniment, there’s no real accompaniment in the chord sense. I tend to work away from chordal shapes. If the way the tunes goes furnishes a chord them I’m playing a chord, but I don’t get into chord sequences, I keep away from relative minors and all the rest of it. I think in terms of melody and occasionally fall into chords.
The alternating bass or regular folk alternating bass has only grown up over the last ten years or so. But the field is wide open in folk guitar. There are no rules, so you have to make them up for yourself and apply them to yourself. Other people make other rules which work beautifully for them. Nic Jones makes things work for him that won’t work for me; and I imagine the same is true the other way round. A lot of my style comes from listening to fiddlers – not guitarists, fiddlers – and any traditional music, because I want to play traditional music.
What tunings do you use for John Blunt?
The same as I use for Paddy Clancy’s Jig, Willy Clancy’s Fancy, The Outlandish Knight and Marrow Bones – DADEAE.
You don’t feel proprietorial about your tunings, in the way, say, a flamenco player does with his falsettas? I’ve a note here about A Sailor’s Life in a tuning that you use and which Davey Graham also invented.
No, I don’t, and if Davey says he made up that tuning, well, I don’t dispute it. I think he did make it up actually. But I remember teaching him a tuning which was the same except the A was G, so instead of DADGAD it was DGDGAD and then one night he turned up at the Troubadour and played She Moves Through The Fair. And the thing is that I can say that I showed him that tuning and I was playing a thing called Willie Moore in that tuning and it may have gone straight through one of Davey’s ears and out the other but when he came to think about other things like She Moves Through The Fair then that tuning might well have suggested itself. But I don’t like the idea of somebody saying they invented it because I believe in such a thing as collective consciousness. That some people can reach the same conclusion at the same time. If they’ve done it with nuclear physics then they must have done it with guitar tunings. And the idea of having two strings together as with G and A is something Americans have used in the Appalachian banjo, and the Indians in the sitar. It’s a very old idea, that, it gives a particular wail. But I’m the last one to dispute Davey on something like that because he’s one of the great originals on the folk scene; in fact I think he’s probably the great original. He’s been ripped off by so many people. Bert and John [Jansch and Renbourn] ripped him off something rotten, something chronic, didn’t they, let’s face it.
I notice you’ve taken to carrying two guitars around.
Yes, the other one – apart from my Martin – is a Roger Bucknall. It’s one of his first jumbos. He wasn’t going to sell it because it was a workshop guitar, one he had around for himself. It’s a smashing guitar with a big sound – it really has a very nice sound indeed. I was up that way around two years ago and I went to his workshop and he offered me one of his guitars and I refused it – for plenty of reasons actually. I felt that unless I really loved it I would be taking it under false pretenses because I’d take it and hang it on the wall and that wouldn’t be fair to him. Anyway the second time I went there he showed me various guitars and handed me this one by mistake, and I tuned it, played it, and well, I’ve got it. It’s a totally different sound to the Martin. The Martin is a very fleet guitar. It has a lot of spine to it, a kind of nasty sound. This one’s much grander, and I really am knocked out with it. Usually I play one guitar but because of this one I’ve started carrying two guitars. I promised to play it in clubs, so I do, partly to oblige but mostly because it’s a bloody good guitar. And it makes life a lot easier because I have them in different tunings. I do have other tunings but they work from these basic tunings. Mind you, I like that Martin. I shall never stop playing it until it falls to pieces. really, that’s how I feel about it. I can’t imagine having another guitar. I had a 0028 at one point but I swapped it for a D28. Then I got rid of that because I was never using it. I don’t have an electric guitar anymore either. I feel quite moral about it. In many ways, I believe that guitars need playing. Guitars have got to be played otherwise they die.
What do you think of the notion that guitarists shouldn’t need to use capos?
I think it’s a wrong view because the folk sound is an open sound. You have the same thing in flamenco but you don’t expect Paco Pena to play soleares in F sharp just to prove that he can do it; it’s not on. It’s a useful thing being able to play barre, it’s nice to know loads of chord sequences. The capo is a thing that enables you to do something, like the guitar is an instrument that enables you to do something. It’s not an end in itself. It has to be a means to an end the whole time. As soon as the guitar itself becomes an end, then it’s… the end.
All photos by George Clinton