1998 (c.): The Guitarist

From the Guitarist Magazine website


Martin Carthy talks to Matt Swaine about the 60s folk revival with Dylan and Paul Simon and his approach to traditional music…

With two recent Mercury Award nominees and the father of the folk revival under one roof, you’d expect Martin Carthy’s home to be bursting with music morning, noon and night. It’s a little disappointing then, to find daughter, violinist Eliza Carthy, and his wife, singer Norma Waterson, chatting around the kitchen table, without even as much as the rhythmic tap of cutlery.

“Sometimes we do have a bit of a spontaneous burst of music,” says Martin, “but on the whole we just tend to play in the studio together.”

Eliza, turning round to smile from the table, was nominated in 1998 for her album ‘Red Rice’, a blending of traditional folk and dance music, while Norma found herself up against Pulp for the 1997 award. Martin himself has been at the forefront of the folk revival since the early 60s and has played with Steeleye Span, The Albion Band and The Watersons while maintaining a healthy solo career.

That career began in London’s folk clubs where he found himself playing alongside the likes of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. It was there that Paul Simon first heard and ‘borrowed’ Martin’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. “He pretty much lifted it directly,” says Martin. “He would have first heard me play it in 1964… it could have been 1963.”

Martin was instrumental in getting Paul Simon his first resident slot in a folk club in Brentwood. “The organiser of the club asked if I’d ever heard of Paul Simon. I hadn’t,” says Martin. “But I told him that the Americans were good performers. ‘He thinks he’s up to it’ I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’ At that time the folk scene was burgeoning, the membership ran into millions and every town had a choice of folk clubs every night of the week.”

It was the song Scarborough Fair that finally brought the two together. “Paul Simon had heard about it and he wanted to see me play it. I sat down and wrote it out for him. Who knows, he may very well have copyrighted it the next day.

“It’s a traditional song, he simply lifted my way of doing it. I felt aggrieved for a long time, but I don’t give a toss now. When he was making a fortune with The Graduate, I don’t think I ever thought, ‘that could have been me…’ not for a minute.”

Paul Simon did finally make a one-off payment for the song. “The way I got it was comical,” says Martin, explaining how he’d been duped. “After splitting up with my first wife, I rang Paul asking if the money had come through. I told him I wanted to buy a house for £1800. ‘That’s amazing,’ he said, ‘The payout is exactly £1800’. I thought it was great but I left with big donkey’s ears.”

There were plenty of American musicians in England at the time and Paul Simon’s ‘lifting’ of Scarborough Fair was one aspect of the musical cross pollination happening at that time. “We were learning techniques from the Americans. Anyone who wanted to play guitar had to go to them to learn the techniques. The first guitar player I ever learnt from was Big Bill Broonzy, I borrowed all his EPs from my mates.

“In return we gave the Americans songs… The English actually changed Dylan’s way of writing songs. His first album ‘Bob Dylan’ was basically little blues bits and pieces with the occasional American version of a folk song thrown in. His second album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ was almost finished when he came to England in 1962. When he went back home he wrote at least two songs to complete it. One of them was Bob Dylan’s Dream which he learnt from me singing a song called Lord Franklin.

Another was Girl From The North Country, which derives from Scarborough Fair. Boots Of Spanish Leather from ‘Times They Are A-Changin’, that’s got London in it somewhere… I don’t know where, I’ve just got a hunch. The whole of that album’s smothered in this shift in musical direction. The tunes are far more expansive, they’re more of this side of the Atlantic. Dylan was a piece of blotting paper, he still is. He hears stuff and he just gobbles it up and out it comes in another form.”

Martin’s latest album ‘Signs Of Life’, his first solo album for ten years, has the occasional nod to America’s musical heritage. His reworking of Heartbreak Hotel has had a mixed response from critics. “It’s the King… people have failed to look at the song and they can’t see past Vegas or Elvis. There’s much more to it than that and the fact that it’s written by a woman, Mae Axton, twists it again.”

It certainly stands out on the album as a guitar-led song rather than the predominantly vocally-led traditional songs. “I think of it as a blues. All my favourite blues performers work in a call and response way. They’ll sing a line and then play something. That’s a completely new departure for me because in everything I do, the guitar is totally integrated into the singing and as I get to know the song better the guitar gets stripped right down,” he says, playing a blues progression that betrays his folk roots with every percussive hammer on.

As with Scarborough Fair, Martin is best known for his arrangement of traditional English folk songs. While Fairport Convention gave The Deserter a swirling folk-rock accompaniment, on ‘Signs Of Life’ Martin has chosen a more sedate, ballady tune. “I heard it from a gypsy singer called Wiggy Smith. It was on a record that Topic (Martin’s own record company) brought out in the 70s. The tune that Fairport used was actually from a song called Aberdeenshire. Reading books, you come across songs that stick their hooks in. If there’s no tune, it’s a question of finding one that suits it. If it has a tune, you can decide if you want to use it or not. The great thing about this stuff is that you can do what you damn well please and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Being able to ‘do what you damn well please’ even extends to these songs’ lyrics. Fairport’s version of The Deserter ends with the errant soldier being set free by Prince Albert and then going on to become a loyal infantryman. This ending didn’t sit at all well with Martin, “This is a song called The Deserter. The last thing he wants to do is to be a good soldier. But Wiggy Smith has another verse which goes… ‘If I had my own home and my sweet liberty, I’d do no more soldiering, neither by land or by sea…’ That’s the one I’ve used.”

According to Martin, it was the church and the state who twisted these songs for their own gains. “As the moralisers started getting hold of this stuff, you could do anything in a song, screw anybody as long as you all got married at the end of the day.”

And he feels that this message is as important today as it was when the song was first written. “Traditional song is political. Put yourself back 200 years and sing a song about one person behaving quite abominably towards another and your reaction is going to be ‘that’s no way to behave’. I don’t do things as historical curiosities. I do things because they’re real… the fact that it was made in 1998 makes it real.”

Political events during the 80s encouraged him to write two wholly contemporary pieces. “I’ve only written two songs from scratch and they came around the same time. The first song, Company Policy, was about the Falklands. Two things dawned on me: the first was that no-one had written a song about this momentous event. If that had happened in 1962 rather than 1982 you’d have had millions of songs about it. The second came when I went to this festival.

There was a band called the Fabulous Salami Brothers, singing a song about the Falklands. It was all about this soldier coming back from the South Atlantic to haunt Mrs Thatcher, but she was simply unhauntable. She couldn’t feel anything.

A section of the audience booed it. Norma and I were enraged. We suddenly realised that the de-politicisation of the folk scene was complete in 1982. The whole thing started out as a political movement. It was based for the most part on CND and the anti-apartheid movement.” The situation in South Africa inspired him to write the song, A Question Of Sport.

There’s little that he feels he could commit to music today. “I don’t know how you’d write about the need for a freedom of information act. In my mind there’s nothing more pressing, it simply doesn’t strike in the same way as a song about war.”


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