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Last week I was mostly listening to… Martin Carthy… October 17, 2016

Posted by Aonrud ⚘ in This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to..., Uncategorized.

…I really was – I saw him play twice last week, after years of missing his gigs, and both were brilliant. If you’re not familiar wth him, Martin Carthy is a stalwart of the folk scene and one of the finer folk guitarists. He has a lot of solo work, but also often playing with the fiddler Dave Swarbrick, the Watersons (he is married to Norma Waterson), a brief stint in Steeleye Span, The Imagined Village, and various other folk groups. His arrangement of Scarborough Fair might be familiar from Paul Simon’s lifting of it (a man prone to appropriation, apprently). One distinctive aspect of Carthy’s playing is the tuning he favours, which gives a low C on the bottom string which is great for a bass-y root or drone, and widens the range as well.

He was part of a sort of memorial concert of songs of Ewan McColl in the NCH in Dublin – which included Peggy Seeger, her and McColl’s children, Martin and Eliza Carthy, and others. (Seeger, despite a somewhat weakened voice, still does an excellent performance of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, 60 odd years after McColl wrote it for her). Then a couple of days later, Carthy was playing a solo gig in Belfast, which was another fantastic performance.

The NCH is an odd place for a folk gig, but I suppose it reflects an older and probably middle class audience that it was a pricey Tuesday night in the NCH and not a Friday in the pub. Maybe a certain irony in it for a communist repertoire. The Belfast gig was a more typical pub venue, though still an older crowd. (I saw Chris Wood a few months back, with a similar age profile in the room, and he said the folk scene is supported by the pensions of the same people who started it with their student grants.)

Anyway, Carthy is the master of the long narrative ballad, and played this fantastic version of Bill Norrie, recorded elsewhere below. Under that is a selection of his songs from over the years.

Another ballad for which he was well known earlier in his career, Famous Flower of Serving Men.

Here he is with Dave Swarbrick, playing his version of Byker Hill.

His version of Dominion of the Sword, which I think is a traditional tune to which he wrote modern lyrics.

Another fairly grim tale, Prince Heathen.


Something a bit livelier from Imagined Village, with Carthy on guitar, and Eliza Carthy singing, along with Chris Wood.


1. sonofstan - October 17, 2016

Saw him for the first time early this year after just missing loads. A giant


sonofstan - October 17, 2016

When I found out a few years back the details of his tuning I got excited when I could sound a bit like him. And then realised that ‘a bit’ was as far as I was ever going to get. Not much of what he does is conventionally virtuoso stuff but the timing and the tone and the attack is inimitable. There a great clip of him playing a telecaster with the early version of Steeleye Span and himself and swarbrick sound like the VU in Arden


Aonrud ⚘ - October 17, 2016

I’ve tried using his tuning a couple of times (though in D, to make life easier), but it’s hard not to just be a bad derivative of Martin Carthy then. It’s like trying to write in the whole-tone scale without sounding like a crap Debussy.


2. sonofstan - October 17, 2016

And here it is…

Liked by 1 person

3. sonofstan - October 17, 2016

Last comment, but apparently Green of Scritti Politti was a huge Carthy fan as a teen, (and a communist) and used to hitch around Britain following him, quite often cadging a lift back from the man himself.


Phil - October 17, 2016

And two of the songs on the “Work in Progress” EP are based on traditional songs. Well, one, at least – Scritlock’s Door is supposed to be based on Lizzie Wan, but I can’t see the similarity. But Hegemony is Lemany – a discovery which genuinely rocked my world.

(Having one’s world rocked is not likely to be comfortable, if you think about it.)

Liked by 1 person

sonofstan - October 18, 2016

That’ s a great post. I don’t regret what Green did, because I think everything he’s done is interesting, but it is something to ponder what might have been if they’d stayed in the squat as it were.


4. Joe - October 17, 2016

Thanks Aonrud. Lovely stuff. Jimmy Kelly is singing in the Clé Club in Liberty Hall this Wed at 7.45pm. I shall get up off my arse and go.


5. Phil - October 17, 2016

Incidentally, the words to Dominion of the Sword are about 1/4 Carthy and 3/4 from a folk song written in the 17th century; details here.


Aonrud ⚘ - October 18, 2016

Thanks Phil. That would explain the mix of styles in them too. Mudcat is a great resource, isn’t it? Especially since it’s been around long enough that there’s an old thread somewhere for everything.


6. CL - October 18, 2016

Martin Carthy sounds like an excellent candidate for the Nobel prize in literature.


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