2009 : Acoustic magazine

Acoustic” magazine  Issue 29, May 2009

The Two Martins

Martin Carthy and his Martin 00018, that is. Joel McIver meets one of the most forward-thinking folk musicians in Britain.


Folk music, as we all know, is usually misrepresented as a stuffy, hidebound genre of music which can only be enjoyed by men who are over 65, wear fisherman’s sweaters and drink warm brown beer. Despite magazines such as this one, which have given folk musicians endless support over the years, the scene continues to be regarded by the wider world as an exercise in nostalgia for fans who wish that it was still 1965.

Well, Martin Carthy isn’t having any of that – and he should know. Having fought at the frontline of folk for almost half a century as part of The Watersons, Steeleye Span and now Waterson:Carthy, he’s become intimately acquainted with the most influential practitioners on the scene and is still pushing out the boundaries of folk music at 67 years old. His collaboration with Afro Celt Sound System founder, Simon Emmerson, in the Imagined Village collective has been hailed as visionary in many quarters – but he still retains his links with the old guard, honouring the great hero of folk, Bert Lloyd, at London’s Cecil Sharp House after Acoustic caught up with him. And we do mean ‘caught up’ – the man has a busier schedule than most people half his age…

Martin you have several projects on the go at any given moment.

I just keep saying yes! It’s great to have all these opportunities, thank you vary much. I’m not about to complain.

Can you explain Bert Lloyd’s importance for our readers?

Well, Bert was a lot of things. He want out to Australia as a very young man and wrote down some of the songs that he heard. He believed in the music that people made; he was a lifelong communist, and he loved and admired anything that the people did. He researched it and sang it and told stories about it. One of his great unperformed works was a ballad opera called The Great White Whale, which wasn’t about Moby Dick. You should talk to Dave Swarbrick about that, because he’s managed to get hold of it. It’s totally enthralling, but then he was a totally enthralling man to listen to. He was an incredible inventor – he loved to play around with music.

The Bert Lloyd tribute gig was held at Cecil Sharp House, named after the great archivist of folk music. Would the two men have got on well, do you thing?

Hmm. Had Bert ever met Cecil Sharp, they might have fallen out, because Cecil believed that the form of the music, as he found it, was everything.

The same Lloyd/Sharp parallel could be drawn between you and the Imagined Village’s Simon Emmerson, because he came from the punk scene and you’re a lifelong folkie. Is that reasonable?

On the face of it, possible, but in fact, no – because he came from punk and I emerged from skiffle, and I’ve always seen punk as the 1976 version of the skiffle of 1955. What skiffle did was put music back in the hands of the people, which is precisely what punk did. Skiffle said, it doesn’t matter if you can’t play, because you learn as you go along – and if anybody says it’s rubbish, they’re fools. What do they know? We’re all geniuses and it’s brilliant! Ha ha! That’s precisely the attitude that punk had.

So folk songs can be improved and updated as the years pass?

I don’t see why not. As far as I’m concerned, you can do absolutely anything with music. Music likes to be mauled about, it can’t be frozen and stuck in a glass case and hung on the wall – you’ll kill it. I think of folk music as the complete refutation of the idea that you can’t have art by committee. It’s music fashioned by people of of thin air.

What would Cecil Sharp have thought of this progressive attitude?

My guess is that he would have liked it in principle. He would be in a cleft stick, maybe, because it would be the music that he loved, being performed by people who were the descendants of people that he knew. But he was of his time, you know; people complain about the fact that he changed the music, but if he hadn’t done that, it would never have been published. The fact the it seemed to be frozen in the form in which he published it is the problem. Tradition is a progressive force. That has become obvious to me over the last 24 years. It never stays still. Progressiondoesn’t replace tradition. People like me, or The Imagined Village, aren’t trying to replace anything – it’s all part of the regeneration process. Everything compliments everything else.

Will folk music change radically over the next few years?

It already has changed. If I could go back 48 years, which is how long I’ve been playing, I wouldn’t believe what’s been played now. I might even be horrified. Back then the guitar was not really an acceptable instrument on which to play this music. None of us were particularly competent, technically: We slogged away for 30-odd years – and along comes a bunch of 18 to 20 year olds who learn what we do in half an hour! And they’re away over the horizon.

Who were the guitar heroes on the folk scene in the early days?

Bert Jansch was a revelation when he first appeared in the early 60s. He was one of those people for whom the guitar was made. Davy Graham also inspired me – and he inspired Bert too, and John Renbourn. We all learnt off each other. Paul Simon told me exactly the same thing: that we all pounced on each other’s ideas.

Famously, Paul Simon used your arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” on the huge-selling Simon & Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage Rosemary And Thyme in 1966 and you didn’t see a penny from it.

There’s no problem about that – Paul had as much right to that song as everyone else. Everybody learnt from everybody else, and if someone came up with a new idea, all the other players would pounce on it.

Yes, but wouldn’t that song have earned you rather a lot of money?

Not necessarily. The truth of the matter is that Paul Simon got no royalties from “Scarborough Fair” either, because there was a third person who had succeeded in copyrighting it, who is now dead, Not a folkie, a music publisher.

Can we name and shame him?

Not in public. This person heard that I’d made rude remarks about him, and he phoned me up and got quite threatening. He finally put the phone down after I said, “I know exactly how much money you’ve stolen from me!” There was a silence at the other end, and I never heard another word.

Tell us about your signature Martin acoustic.

It’s a beautiful guitar. Martin are another example of tradition being progressive – they’re not afraid to change. There’s one thing on it that isn’t on any other guitar: a zero fret. There are Martin enthusiasts who come up and look at the guitar and say, “That sounds fantastic!” and then they see the zero fret and they virtually spit on the ground and walk away. Ha ha! Funny, isn’t it…

Joel McIver

© Oyster House Media Limited

All Photos: © Richard Ecclestone

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