1983 : Swing 51

“Swing 51”  No.7, 1983

The release of any record by Martin Carthy warrants the attention of the folk music press, such is his stature, and very few magazines fail to grasp the opportunity to analyse and/or dissect his records. The release of his Out Of The Cut (Topic 12TS426) caused the usual flurry of interest in the media and its release seemed like an obvious moment to corner him in discussion, especially since at the time that this interview was done Out Of The Cut was weeks away from issue and the white label copy that came the way of Swing 51 quickly asserted itself as one of 1982’s best releases. Considering his role in the folk revival of the British Isles Martin carthy is a character who appears to us to receive relatively little in the way of media attention, apart from at the time of a new record’s release. It is almost as if he is taken for granted at times. It is hoped that this interview, which dwells on Out Of The Cut and its background, sheds some light on the man and the way he works.

Out Of The Cut in many respects is similar to its immediate predecessor, Because It’s There (Topic 12TS389). Like that album Out Of The Cut finds Martin Carthy joined by other musicians associated with him in various guises, the most important of whom (in respect of his ‘career development’) being John Kirkpatrick and Howard Evans. Both are associated with him through their trio work and Brass Monkey, whose debut recording (Topic 12TS413) was completed at the beginning of 1983. On Because It’s There the use of the trio was limited to “Lovely Joan” and “Jolly Tinker”. On Out Of The Cut it has been extended to three cuts (“I Sowed Some Seeds”, “Friar In The Well” and “Old Horse”). Apart from John K’s accordion work on “The Devil And The Feathery Wife” and a solitary appearance by Richard Thompson on guitar on “Old Horse” there is no-one else apart from Carthy handling the musicianly chores (as the say in some circles).

The analogy with Because It’s There is further extended by the presence of what might be termed a major piece on the album (meaning a ballad rather than indicating a piece of greater importance or worthiness) and on Out Of The Cut it is “Jack Rowland”; this follows in the tradition of “Death Of Young Andrew” on Because It’s There and “Willie’s Lady” on Crown Of Horn. There is also an instrumental, “Molly Oxford”, which again follows in the pattern of the glorious “Siege Of Delhi” on Because; “Molly Oxford” does not have quite the hypnotic ‘old time toe tapper’ (to quote the Everly Bros) feel to it that “Siege Of Delhi” had. It is still strong enough to hold its own against weightier stuff like “The Song Of The Lower Classes”, “Rufford Park Poachers” or “Reynard The Fox” on that first side. Belabouring the similarities is not the aim of this introduction, however.

Anyone who has read much about Martin Carthy’s preparation of material and the lengths to which he goes when seeking out suitable material will be aware that it is not idle chance which drops his material in his lap; it is the result of much disquisition. The same aplies to the material on Out Of The Cut. Nevertheless there is one source credited in his sleeve notes which cannot go by on the nod and that is the source for “The Devil And The Feathery Wife”, it being a manuscript with the delightful name of Secret Songs Of Silence.

In the UK Out Of The Cut is on Topic 12TS426 and in the USA Rounder 3075.

Were you tempted to record any more using the trio?

No, I wasn’t, because I wanted us to do some stuff together, the three and the five. We started off with the idea of staying away from recording for as long as was possible.

Was there any particular reason for having Richard Thompson on that one track, “Old Horse”?

Not especially. It’s just that we’d done it and I was saying to John, “Do you think if I asked Richard he’d play?” So he said, “Ring him up. Yes, I think he would say ‘yes’.” So I rang him up and asked him and he came the next day. This was after the Watersons had worked on Shoot Out The Lights.

I read the notes on “Jack Rowland” and they puzzled me more than the actual song. I haven’t read the original so I don’t know how it worked out. Had you deleted quite a bit?

Well, you won’t find the original unless you find the Jamieson book. As it stands, I wrote it based on an old story.

What puzzled me was this King Arthur business, the ‘King under the hill’, because usually King Arthur in folk tale, the king sleeping under the hill, is a force for good…

Don’t forget the whole King Arthur thing is a much more recent, romantic business. It’s not much to do with traditional balladry, not that that is a particularly traditional ballad, because, as I say, I did write large lumps of it, but it’s based on the story. But what I’m getting at is that a lot of the antiquarians, the collectors who were antiquarians, in the last century would seem to want as many stories as possible to be about King Arthur and it strikes me that if they weren’t about King Arthur they jiggled it around so that it looked like it was. In Jamieson, that is one of the stories that, I think, is made to look as if it’s a King Arthur story when really it’s something distinct.

King Arthur is not the figure under the hill in the story; King Arthur is the bloke at the beginning, the father – who never appears in the song – of Jack Rowland. But I don’t regard it as a King Arthur story. I tell it as something entirely distinct. I try to get away from King Arthur whenever possible because I think there’s a lot of hooey talked about him. Maybe it’s my fault for bringing up the subject. (Laughter). But somebody’s bound to mention it so I thought I might as well try to straighten it out to begin with.

Is that business, which I thought was very good, the repetition of the song that the spider sings to the fly in the original? I thought that was a good figure.

That’s my idea. I quite liked it, I must say. I had it in a third time but decided then that would be going over the top. I was going to have it at the end when the horse sings “the song that the spider songs when she has caught the fly.” I thought, “Maybe not!” But then again, maybe I’ll put it in another time, because the song’s not finished yet. Songs change. Songs like that change. At least I think of it as a song that’s going to change, because it’s not got the pedigree of all the others. If you know what I mean!

Jody Stecher and I had a discussion about changing songs and how in some instances a song once written down by someone in the past takes on a very fixed form and peaople don’t want to jiggle with it. They feel that somehow they’re debasing the song if they do.

Yes, a lot of people do feel like that. I understand it sometimes; I don’t understand it as a doctrine, put it that way. If I can make a distinction between principle and doctrine: In principle I don’t like to change something that’s been around for a long time, but I don’t think one should be doctrinaire about it. I don’t mean to play with words.

Do you tend to concentrate on one, what you might call, major ballad during a span of performing and then go on to another?

I used to. Not so much now. Not so much now. I tend to do just what I fancy singing. I’ll sing one a lot, like with “Jack Rowland” I’ll sing that a lot just to get it stuck into the head, get it into the bloodstream, but after that I like it to create its own balance. One song I have concentrated on and excluded songs for is “Willie’s Lady”, which I think is an extraordinary song. I do sing that song a great deal. I sang it nearly every night for about seven or eight years. I leave it out a lot these days because I think perhaps people are getting fed up of hearing it. It’s extraordinary to me because I can sing it as many times as anybody wants. But having resisted the idea that people can get fed up with a song like that for a long time, I now no longer resist it. It would be an awful thing if, having lasted however many hundred years, it was sung into the ground by one jerk going around the folk clubs. (Laughter). That’s how I feel about it.

I like the contrast between the lighthearted, say, “Friar In The Well”, and “Rigs Of The Time”.

It all seems to me to be the same thing. They’re different kinds of politics, if you like: somebody playing games with somebody else. The Friar is quite an incredible liar in order to get his own way. He’ll do absolutely anything and this apparent innocent just completely upends him. I don’t regard “I Sowed Some Seeds” as remotely lighthearted; I think it’s a tragic song. “The Devil And The Feathery Wife” is a great learning song. Things are not what they seem to be. That’s also to be found in “Jack Rowland”; that’s the lesson of the song: things are not what they seem to be. “The Devil And The Feathery Wife” is your standard off-the-peg farmer being greedy and his standard off-the-peg scolding wife. who turns out to be not remotely standard or off-the-peg. Off the wall perhaps, but certainly not off-the-peg. It seems to me that the songs on that album are all connected. I don’t care to make the connections concrete, but it seems to me that they’re all of a piece, that the album is a piece without being an actual theme, without being a concept album.

There are certainly links between one song and the next in some cases.

And you end up with “Old Horse”. It seems to me that all the songs are something to do with being alive. One shouldn’t try to do make too much of any difference between “Song Of The Lower Classes” and “The Friar In The Well”.

Because they are both about exploitation?

In one way or another, without getting pompous or silly about it, they are just that. One person determined to have that person’s own way and unfortunately for him but fortunately being thwarted and being made to look extremely silly. When one gets to the heavier side of life things often don’t work out that way, but it would be nicer if they did, so don’t care to make too much of the difference. It seems to me that the songs are all interlinked and they’re all fundamentally the same. Thank you! (Laughter). Some of them are more direct than others obviously. “Song Of The Lower Classes” or “Rigs Of The Time” are both much more direct, to the point and very angry. I was listening this morning to a programme on the radio(*) about Robert Owen, the man who built New Lanark, and Maddy (Prior) funnily enough was singing “Song Of The Lower Classes” with its original tune.

(*) This broadcast in the Utopia series described the story of Robert Owen (1771-1858). Owen was a social reformer who founded model communities at New Lanark in Scotland and New Harmony in the United States.

I thought that “The Devil And The Feathery Wife” contrasted very well with “The Devil And The Farmer’s Wife”, which is probably a better known song.

In both cases they’ve got the idea of the farmer’s wife. The scolding wife is even more scolding than you could possibly imagine and with her combination of scolding and, more to the point, wit she actually gets out of Hell and the Devil can’t handle her in “The Devil And The Farmer’s Wife”. Neither should he. There’s a lesson to be learned there. With “The Devil And The Feathery Wife” she is actually working together with her husband to get him out of a hole which he’s got himself into and he doesn’t know where to turn quite literally. He’s got exactly what he wants, what he thought he wanted, without thinking about the consequences. She thinks of a way out and presumably they keep everything. She is the one who is good at the nuts and bolts, which is history, isn’t it?

You’ve got two different attitudes there. You’ve got one where the wife, or wives to extend it are being treated as shrews and the other is very much a companion.

Yeah, but she starts off as the shrew. She’s still the shrewish wife. She’s still the stereotype and one assumes at the end of it that attitudes have changed. One reason why I like the song is that I choose to believe that at the end of it attitudes have shifted. They will have to shift. With “The Devil And The Farmer’s Wife” that’s not clear. You’re left with three big cheers for the farmer’s wife because she’s outdone the Devil. What you’re left with in “THe Devil And The Feathery Wife” is three great, big cheers for her because she’s outwitted the Devil and she’s also kept a grip upon her life and she has actually made something change. I think it’s a remarkable song for that. It’s been jiggled around in order to get it to work, because the original words, the words from which the song derives, are from a manuscript dated around 1830 and it’s a little bit confusing, but it’s clear this is what happens. So, Bert Lloyd did a bit of jiggling around and just removed a few pieces of the jigsaw, put them aside because they weren’t necessary, and left a relatively complete thing. I’ve jiggled it around a little bit more, not much more, just a little.

Was it typical of the material in that Secret Songs Of Silence collection?

Not particularly, no. Most of the songs in there are rude, if you like, in one way or another, not just sexually rude: there are quite a lot of other songs. They are most of them very witty, except one or two of them are standard fart songs… one or two very funny fart songs (bursting into laughter) I must admit. It’s a book of scurrilous songs, if you like, bawdy songs, but they’re not sexual songs necessarily. But they’ve all got something to recommend them. I’m just thinking of one that isn’t. It’s a very good song called “The Lasses Of Kinghorn”, which is about the soldiers coming to town to recruit one particular lad and the women chase the soldiers away. It’s a brilliant song. At the time they would not have been considered songs for nice company.

Was Peter Buchan, the collector, atypical of this era then in that he was collecting these songs without bowdlerizing them?

Probably yes, but it’s difficult to say in the end. If there were others their manuscripts weren’t saved. Put it that way. I don’t actually know too much about it. There obviously has been through the last hundred years the odd person who has been fascinated by this phenomenon and has written down a few songs. Samuel Pepys did that. Then there have been people who have gone into it in much more detail and have been much more finicky about it. You hear stories about the Rev. John Broadwood, who published his songbook in 1843, about him having endless arguments with his church organist about the way the tunes went. He wasn’t a schooled musician so he would go to his organist and sing him the song and the organist would say, “It’s impossible for the tune to go that way. It must be this…” Broadwood would say, “No! That’s not the way my bloke sang it.” “Rubbish,” says he, “The laws of music say it must go like this…” “Rubbish, ” says he, “My bloke sang it like that and that’s the way it’s going to be.” An endless ping pong match. There was the will among a certain number of people to get things down and get them down right. They were probably a very small number of people. It seems that Buchan wasn’t a classic antiquarian. From what I can gather he was frowned on by a lot of the antiquarians. From what I hear they didn’t believe him a lot of the time because they didn’t want to believe him. Apparently a lot of his songs came from the blind, itinerant fiddle player called Rankin and I believe that some of the antiquarians at the time didn’t believe that Rankin existed, said that Buchan had made him up.

Was this some kind of artistic or professional rivalry?

I imagine it was scholastic rivalry with some kind of spurious artistic standards involved. Maybe they considered themselves to be more aesthetically minded than Buchan, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe he was atypical, but we’ll never know.

But manuscripts keep turning up. If you talk to someone like Vic Gammon – which I do a lot – the thing he goes by is that, OK, there are all these songs that are fragments but one day something will turn up. A collection turns up under someone’s bed, that’s been there Heaven nows how many years and it yields up all these immense riches. Then you go to another period where you’re left with all these fragments that are just tantalizing the Hell out of you and again something just turns up.

Have you got any fragments that are particularly galling?

There’s one particular one that’s been printed and Vic sent me a copy of it from independent research. It’s a thing called “I Lived In Service”. It’s six verses long and the first two verses are clear and the last two verses are clear and in the middle it’s just a hopeless jumble. It’s like if, you know, you get a piece of newspaper and you manage to get it out of a trunk in which it’s been damaged and you can’t quite pull it apart enough; you can read certain words but you can’t quite pull it apart enough; you can read certain words but you can’t quite pull it apart enough without actually destroying the thing to get the complete sense of what there is in this piece of crumpled up newspaper. It may have been damaged by dam, say, or whatever. Well, it’s like that. You’ve got an inkling that teases you and you can’t quite prise them apart far enough to get at what the song’s about. And that’s a corking little song there in “I Lived In Service”. There’s another one, funnily enough, that Ashley gave me years ago called “The Lady Looked Out”. He found it in a collection. Three verses long. I often wondered what this was and there it is in Secret Songs Of Silence, the complete song. A long song with double length verses, eight line verses, and there are twelve or thirteen of them! And one’s instinct was right! Yes, it’s a cracking song, but one could,never have known actually what there was there from the three verses. That’s the other side of it where you can’t see.

What gave you the idea for the arrangement for “The Song Of The Lower Classes”? It sounded so much like a Watersons-style arrangement…

It’s not my arrangement. It’s out of a hymn book dated 1813. It’s a little hymnal with tunes and first verses in and somewhere else in the museum there’s a hymnal with the rest of the verses for each tune. It gives you the tree lines of the parts and the way the words fit, ’cause there’s a lot of fugueing goes on. I wrote it down years ago. I went in with Vic, just pottering around, and he said, “Have a look at that!” He gave me some of the hymn books to look at and I copied down three and that was one of them. I wanted to do the song and I kept trying to think of a different tune that would fit and it struck me that you could more or less take any folk tune and put it to that set of words. It’s such a miraculous song, I think. Such a great piece of writing. Having the opportunity to do something like that I just wondered… and was thinking about the song as I was ferreting through my guitar case – I keep little cards with the tunes on in my guitar case – and came out with one of the tunes and for fun saw if it would fit that. It didn’t fit it. Then I half-remembered that one. I could only remember the fugue bit and suddenly got terribly excited and couldn’t find it again. I ransacked the room and found the cards. It fitted without any jiggling necessary. It seemed to me to be appropriate. It was a hymn that would have been sung at the time but with these different words to it. Since the church was so often a force for evil when it comes to people bettering their lot, it seemed appropriate to me to use one of their pillows to cudgel them with… (Laughter).

One of their pillows?

It’s a very witty pillow! It’s the sort of pillow that’s used to suffocate people. But the basic reason is that it fit. It was afterwards that I thought of things like that! I thought about asking other people to sing on it and then I thought, “No”. I recorded it and then I wondered if I would be better off getting other people to sing on it; then I decided against it because I wanted to get it done. I think it’s OK. I think I could’ve sung it better but then you always think that, don’t you.

Sooner or later you’ve got to put something out. Absolute perfectionism doesn’t work in a world where you have to do these things.

Absolutely. You always think you can do it better. I can hear bits in there where I think, “Arrgh. I should have noticed that.” I thin the spirit of the thing is just about as right as I could get. I was in a very peculiar mood at the time. I was actually unable to tell whether things were god or bad, so I recorded two or three versions and then listened to them a couple of days later to decide which one was right. Usually Jerry Boys, who engineered it, was right. He’s say at the time we were doing it, “I think that’s the one.” I’d argue with him and do another one, argue with him and do another one and I think none times out of ten he was right. It’s nice to know you can trust someone to come up with the goods like that. He’s a tremendous engineer but as a producer and as a pair of ears he’s invaluable.

Another thing that struck me when I heard “Song Of The Lower Classes” was that it was the sort of song that I could imagine Leon Rosselson writing now. It still has a very direct and contemporary feel to it.

Absolutely! When I first read it, it knocked me over because nothing really changed that much. It’s still the same more or less. And it’s not alone in that: I can remember not long after that singing at Lewes (in Sussex) and Vic Gammon stood up and sang  a song from the same period, another Chartist song, that was incredible. It was remarkable. Again 1840ish. Very high quality writing as well.

I had picked up on the fact that several of the songs were exploitative, though not to the same extent as you, and I though that “Reynard The Fox” was good for the first-person twist with the fox fleeing for his life and recounting his thoughts as he tried to escape the hounds.

Also, it’s peculiar in that he dies in the end because of the gamekeeper. He apologises t the huntsmen for not being able to carry out his full part in the hunt because he’s been winged by the gamekeeper. I think it’s a fabulous song. Can’t really say much about that. I think it’s another example of why traditional songs are so absolutely fucking remarkable (Laughter).

How long have you been doing “Rufford Park Poachers” now? I saw you singing it in the summer of ’80 in Lincolnshire on that tour with Jody and Krishna.

About 2½ years. That was in Barton-on-Humber and I hadn’t been doing it very long then.

What particularly attracted you to that song? Was it just the historical incident?

Well, it’s a fantastic tune and a fabulous story. I just think it’s a fantastic song. It’s one of the answers to those people who say that songs don’t make direct statements; there it is in black and white. The song was completed by Patrick O’Shaughnessy as Joseph Taylor only had three verses. One of the verses he has was “Buck or Doe / Believe it so / A pheasant or a hare / Was put on earth / For everyone / Quite equal / For to share.” People who say that songs don’t make direct statements like that should have that one  in neon lights over their doors.

Clearly you have invested a great deal of yourself in “Rigs Of The Time”.

I actually originally wrote about six or seven verses for that but I slung out some. It took a long time for those… I can’t say I wrote the song; the verses surfaced. The ones I slung out were the ones I sat down and wrote. The three that are there – I’ve written a fourth one since – sort of grew. It’s a result of a lot of anger. I’m not a songwriter in the sense that every time something makes me angry I can write a song about it, because I can’t. Because I’ve never tried, I don’t know. That’s not so much a song as three verses; that’s the sort of thing that a non-songwriter writes, I suppose.

Did you start off with the ‘grass’ verse as a link between the old and new?

No, I started off with the Liddle Towers verse and then within the next two days I had the… I reckon within the space of about two weeks the whole thing came together, but I’d been tossing the Liddle Towers verse around in my head for a fair time; the important thing about that is that one does name a particular Home Secretary, the Home Secretary at the time, because he may be responsible for it technically but it’s not actually his fault in that it’s the fault of several Home Secretaries down the years going back to Herbert Morrison and beyond. It’s the result of policies. They get their policing as the result of the policies they pursue. Originally I said, “Here’s the police / I must bring them in…” and it struck me that they’re too easy a target. The place I live in, I went out last winter digging our way out to the lane, and there’s a copper at the end: “Are you all right?” It’s a different kind of copper. You never see them coming out with their truncheons even in a brawl in Whitby, you know, if it’s chucking out time in the bay pubs or in Whitby and there’s some rough pubs there. You come here and you see a whole different side of the police.

My mum always used to say to me, “The Conservative Party is that party that believes in the obedient society.” I can remember her having furious arguments with people about it. “You don’t believe it, then read the speeches of someone like Lord Hailsham. Read those speeches and then tell me the Tories don’t believe it!” Nowadays, it’s gradually come about that all the parties believe in it. There’s no real difference between parties on home policy, on policing the streets.

I take it “Molly Oxford” has no exploitative content!

Except that it’s on a record! And I hope the record’s going to make a little money! (Laughter).

Ken Hunt


  • Brass Monkey live at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London, 3 May 1981 by Dave Peabody
  • “Out Of The Cut” cover shoot outtake (1982) by Keith Morris

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