This interview was conducted during the break in a concert that took place at the Three Horse Shoes pub in Doncaster, South Yorkshire on Thursday 2 June, 1988. I was relatively new to folk music and to the folk club scene, having first heard The Watersons less than two years earlier, but in that time I’d maneuvered my way onto the organising committee of my local folk club and used what little influence I had to ensure we booked Martin Carthy into one of the half dozen concert slots we’d managed to secure that year. At that time I also co-presented a hospital radio programme and it was in this capacity that I requested the interview with Martin – hence the rather insipid first question that was designed to introduce less-familiar listeners to Carthy’s career.
Listening back to the interview for the first time in many years, I’m struck not only by my own lack of any discernible interview technique (forgivable I suppose, as this was my first ever interview) but more significantly by the frankness that Martin displays when talking about his early-seventies style-impasse, his slightly later career crisis and his clear dissatisfaction with certain sections of the UK live music scene. It would have been fascinating to have quizzed him in more detail on either of these points but at the time I was too inexperienced to deviate too far from my prepared questions and more to the point, we were up against strict time constraints – which is also why the interview ends so abruptly.
Whilst this interview certainly won’t go down as either the most revealing or ground-breaking of its kind, I think it provides enough interest to deserve revisiting here.
An edited version was published in Stirrings magazine in 1989 (click on the image to read the edited version), but this is the first time the full interview has been published anywhere. With the exception of a few ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ (mostly mine) and a brief interruption that was my cue to wind up the interview, this is the discussion in full:
Martin, can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing over the last few years or so? I know you’re quite big on the folk scene to say the least, could you just do a quick summary of your career over the last few years if that’s possible?
Well, it’s been basically going around folk clubs either on my own or with various groups I’ve been with. I mean, I work with John Kirkpatrick quite a lot and we work with a… we have a dance band as well. I work with The Watersons quite a lot. I have worked in the past with bands like The Albion Country Band and Steeleye Span. Before that, in the sixties, I worked with a fella called Dave Swarbrick for three and a half years and he later joined Fairport Convention and now has a band called Whippersnapper. Before that I was working on my own and before that I was at school, no before that I was in theatre for a while and then before that I was at school.
You had a band Brass Monkey you mentioned with John Kirkpatrick. I believe they split up last year, is that true?
Yes, that’s right, we split up last summer. It was very hard to get everybody together all the time. We couldn’t do that many gigs and it’s hard for people to maintain commitment, if you like, you know, maintain momentum. But that band’s packed in and we’re back working just the two of us and like I say, we have a dance band which has different people in it and we just go and play dances once in a while, which is a nice way of… it’s a nice change.
Your last couple of albums in fact had John playing on them as well as Howard Evans on the trumpet. Have you any plans to record another solo album, I know over the last couple of years you’ve appeared on various compilations, are there any plans to record and if so, will John be on the recordings?
Yes, I’ll be doing an album at the end of August, beginning of September and yes, John will be on it I hope.
You mentioned The Watersons. Now The Watersons have been doing occasional gigs and I believe it’s about four-or-five years at least since they recorded. Are there any plans for The Watersons to record.
No, not at the moment. Well The Watersons are just a ‘now and then’ group. It’s a family that sing and occasionally go out and do clubs and just occasionally if somebody comes up with a project we’ll get together and we’ll mine a few songs and make another album, but no, we have no plans at the moment.
The Watersons and Swan Arcade have got together recently as an eight-piece under the name of Blue Murder. You’ve done a couple of gigs, are there any future plans to go any further with that?
Well there’s, we’re doing, um… this is something strictly for fun and strictly for festivals because there being eight of us the whole thing would be totally impractical to take it ’round folk clubs and hope to pay the bills. So we do gigs now and again, we’re doing odds and sods. We’re doing a gig in Dumfries at the beginning of June, we’re doing one in… tomorrow actually, no Saturday… we’re doing one in Keithley in August, we’ll probably do something at the Whitby Festival. I say probably, it won’t be an official thing, it’ll just be that we’ll almost certainly all be there and when we collide we start to sing. But as yet, we’ve got these two gigs in England, we’ve got a couple on the continent as well, we’re doing a festival in Brussels and a festival in Leiden, in Holland and they’re in July.
Over the last few years your singing and playing style has changed slightly. Has that been a conscious thing, do you think?
Probably yes. I became very style-conscious in the 70s then became trapped in it and had to extricate myself so to a certain extent, yes it’s conscious but on the other hand, twenty years is a long time and I don’t think it would be possible to stay sounding the same. I mean, physically I can’t sing as loud as I could in the 60s… doesn’t bother me in the slightest but it does mean I have to change my way of doing things.
There were certain accusations, particularly I’m thinking of the album Sweet Wivelsfield, where it seemed that the style was more important than the content. What do you think to those accusations?
Well, I’d agree… I don’t know about being accused of it, but yes I think it was true and it was listening to and making that album that made me realise that it had gone over the edge and something needed to be done. And it’s hard to get… 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 because you’ve really got to… it takes a long time to reach that stage and then you’ve got to sort of unpick the stitches very carefully because 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 just got to try and do it on the spot and it takes a long time. Yes, it was true. Yes…! But I’m happier now with the way things are and with the way I sing but I’m as happy as I’ll every be, which isn’t particularly happy because I wish I had the strength that I had – physical strength – that I had in the sixties and the knowledge I’ve got now. Just I’m a bit more sussed about what singing is about these days and I’m no longer… having said that, I’m no longer quite as sure about everything.
How seriously do you take the songs you choose to sing?
Oh, very seriously indeed. I wouldn’t sing any song… I only sing songs that I really want to sing. I don’t sing anything to please anybody in particular. I don’t find a song in a songbook and think, “Ooh, this’ll be a good one, this’ll please that section of the audience and this’ll please that section of he audience and this’ll get ’em going.” No, I only sing songs that, in one way or another, that 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! (laughs)
Have you ever attempted to write any songs?
I’ve written one, and I might have nearly written a second, I’m not sure. But I’ve made up one from scratch. I’ve re-written a lot of songs, you know re-worked ’em, re-constructed ’em, added little bits if there’s been holes in them, but I’ve only written one song from scratch… When I actually wrote the one song I’ve written it was something I felt I had to do, partly because nobody else I felt 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.
There’s been a revival of interest over the last couple of years in the folk/roots movement, particularly from people such as Andy Kershaw and Folk Roots magazine. Do you think you’ve been affected or influenced by this at all?
No! I don’t mean to sound disdainful but what they’re doing, what Andy Kershaw is doing and what Folk Roots are doing are what was happening in the late fifties and early sixties. One of the things that you used to find in folk clubs, a tremendous diversity. We used to listen to anything and everything we could get our hands on. Records were hard to come by, really hard to come by of the sort of stuff that was interesting. Now there are major companies putting out this stuff and it’s very exciting and I’m really glad but for me what’s happened it that it’s come ’round full circle. One of the things that happened before this current revival of interest was a tremendous sagging in popularity of the whole thing and clubs closing down everywhere and a general feeling of apathy/despair. And during that period I remember sitting down and thinking very hard about this and saying, “Now 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 letting it ride, riding your luck?” And I came to the conclusion that I did love it just as much, I was just about as excited and my attitude was the same now as it was when I was seventeen, only, you know, there’s 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 do it wrong, I still get as irritated with people who mess about as I did then.
Have you any particular favourite new singers that have come out of the revival? I know you’re a big fan of Pete Morton.
Mmm, I am. Also a fan of Roger Wilson and of Chris Wood. 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 24 are about five- or six-times the musicians we were at the age of 24, and I envy them that.
You worked with Chris Wood last year, didn’t you, on the Country Dancing project. You did mention earlier that you’d worked in theatre when you were younger, how did the current thing come about?
I simply… the phone rang. A fella from the RSC, one of the directors rang up. I’d worked with him before on a play called Today which he’d done at The Other Place in Stratford. It was a modern play and part of it was set in the Spanish Civil War. It was about a character growing up, um… and I’d worked with him on that play and he was then doing this play about Cecil Sharp and he rang me up and he asked me to put a band together and select songs and organise the dancers and a choreographer and all the rest of it. And Chris was one of the people I asked to join the band and I’d only seen him play fiddle once but, I don’t know, you get 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 play at the National festival and he said, “But I played crap there,” and I said, “Well, yes that’s true!” (laughter). But you can see when somebody’s got it, when somebody’s good, even if they’re playing badly and they’re just really 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. But I think he’s a great player and a great singer too.
What about recording with him?
Oh, I’m going to ask him if he’s going to be on this new record, just on a track or two.
The theatre project, was that just a one off or are there plans for more theatre projects
No, there’s no… every theatre project I’ve ever done has been a one… apart from at the beginning when I was working backstage, I’d just left school and went into theatre because I believed that I was going to be the greatest actor that ever lived! Unfortunately, the theatre world and I didn’t see eye to eye on that. Well, that’s another story… all the theatre projects I’ve done since then have all been one offs. Which is nice, I mean, 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 dead lucky. And I think 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.
Last year a book came out of your guitar tunes. How long as that in preparation?
Mmm, a good year.
What made you bring that out?
The reason why it came was that a fella rang me up and said he wanted to do it, would I co-operate? So I said yes. He did all the work, he did it all on computer, on a disc. I went down and we just put some songs in, did an interview, I mean that big preamble at the beginning was condensed from about three hours of interview and it was very disjointed and we just sat and slogged through it. And then we did, I think there’s about three or four transcriptions onto tablature and that was the only argument we had because I hate tablature, I really loath it. I loath it because I think that the way I learned to play guitar was by listening – listening to records and watching people and listening to the way they played – and when I was actually trying to work things out off records, playing things over and over again and learning them I made all sorts of mistakes and did all sorts of things wrong, but on the way through all those mistakes I found out how to play the guitar. And when I hear people who have learned from tablature they all sound the same and I would really hate it if I was the cause of, you know, if a hundred people bought the book and a hundred people learned to play all those tunes I would really hate to be the cause of a hundred people playing exactly like me… take that as you will! (laughs)
So with the theatre, books, various groups, solo projects… what’s next?
Just more clubs. All that is sidetracking really. The main basic thing is going round clubs, 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 a chance to earn your bread and butter in the States and in Canada, and I’ve had the chance to earn it in New Zealand and in Australia and India and Sri Lanka and Indonesia and Malaysia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany – East and West, um, Spain. Never been to Portugal, damn it! I was standing – 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 if he saw me standing…” And what was happening was that, you see, Anchorage, Alaska is a stopover point for the planes coming from Tokyo, they do the hop to Anchorage and then they come to Europe. And the Japanese all got off the plane in pairs and they all stood next to the polar bear and had their photograph taken. One would take a photograph, give the camera to the other one who’d then take a photograph of him, right? And then people were queueing up to do this in twos and I remember standing there and looking at these – I was just about to get on the plane – standing there and looked all these people taking their photographs and just thinking, 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!
How do the people in America and the other countries you mentioned react to the songs you sing, because they’re very British songs aren’t they?
Well, they take it as very exotic. They treat it rather like we treat them or we treat Ali Farka Toure or Jali Musa whatshisname… Jawara and people like that. So that’s how they treat people like me. A lot of people know who I am or they’ll know about English… there’s a British folk scene in Australia and in 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 and one time in the mid-seventies so when we all used to go over there we all had a certain status already. In the States it’s different. There are a certain number of people who might know who we all are and who I am, but in America when you go and do a gig in a small town you’ll get a hundred people there, ninety of whom will not have the slightest idea what they’re going to see but Americans will take the chance. You know, somebody in town like you, will do a gig in town you’ll say, right there’s this singer coming in I really want this singer to come to my town. So you’ll ring up the agent and say, “I want this singer to come to my town, I’ll put on the concert. I will take the risk and I’ll put up the money.” And the person then puts up the money, runs around does a lot of advertising, goes and plugs it like mad on local radio, and when people there in the States hear, they think, “Oh, music coming to out town. Let’s 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? Would they?
No, they wouldn’t, but in the States they do because they’re interested in that sort of thing and they’re just hungry for knowledge. There’s a certain kind person in the States who is hungry for knowledge and hungry for anything different and they make a great audience.
Why do you think the situation is completely the opposite in this country?
Well, I think because, um… there’s a certain complacency about the English. The Americans are still… there’s still a pioneering spirit in America. You know, people will up sticks and go out into a new area and put down roots and start a community. They’re still doing it, people are settling, going out and settling just like they did in the covered wagons, they’re doing that in Alaska now, starting communities. Because you can still do that thing in America… you can go and stake a claim, you can still do it. So a group of you go out and you do it in Alaska.
© Kevin Boyd