David Markham talks to a genuine legend ahead of his York Literature Festival appearance
After a week – trying to organise a time slot for an interview with Martin Carthy – a date is finally agreed. The only problem is – I’m travelling to London for a weekend break and timescales are tight. The requested time is 11am.
I arrive at Kings Cross and the only place I can think of – to undertake the interview – is the recently restored and grandiose St Pancras Hotel. A fine Victorian building created by Sir George Gilbert Scott. I manage to pursuade the concierge that I need a room for half an hour (that was a tough sell!) and after a little resistance he accompanies me to a tall-ceilinged room that is decorated immaculately. I sit down in the sumptuous leather seats, dial the number I’ve been provided and lo and behold – I find myself in the company of a legend. A humble one I give you that but nevertheless a legend. Let the interview begin.
My conversation with Martin has come about due to the fact that he and writer Peter Robinson are due to perfom at the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, on Tuesday, March 19 at 7.30pm. They will perform an appetising mix of the written word – in the shape of a story – woven with music. Peter Robinson provides the words and Martin Carthy provides the music. There will be twists and turns along the way. It will clearly be well crafted and I have high hopes that the evening will be unique and befitting of the highly regarded creative talents of Carthy and Robinson.
Martin is a joy to speak to. Considered, polite, coherent, direct and the custodian of a wealth of stories regarding the English folk scene. His role of inspiring the likes of Dylan and Simon is well documented so I begin by asking him about what he took from the American scene in the Sixties.
“I learnt my guitar playing from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and adapted what I do from that and then it’s been about figuring out how to evolve the music thereafter. I’ve had a great time doing it.” He doesn’t really think too much about whether his style is American in anyway. “If you take Martin Simpson for example his music has a Southern edge to it and indeed it is American in style. He’s a fabulous slide guitarist and banjo player and those two facets seap into his music to provide a real ‘snap’. My guitar style is much sloppier.”
He’s made records for the same label for many years – Topic Records. It seems to be an enduring relationship. How does he feel about the rise of the internet and the contribution of new technology? “I don’t really think about it to be honest. I may check the web out if I need some information or send some emails and occasionally I may put some music up but by and large I still consider it a ‘wonderful mystery’. The younger generation may find it useful but I don’t honestly think about it that much.”
We spoke about the recent death of Patti Andrews from the Andrews Sisters and the notion that blood relations are capable of great things when it comes to music. “Blood relations can create an extraordinary blend. I’m not talking about the quality of music – I’m taking about the blend – it can be extraordinary.
“I loved the Andrews Sisters for this very reason and it can even be heard in a group like the Bee Gees of course. You can have good singers who can perform great harmonies but you don’t get that blend unless you are relatives. It’s a funny thing you know – I was getting all excited about that concept and I spoke to Norma about it and she just looked blankly at me! She’s done it all her life! I guess we maybe take it a little too much for granted in Waterson Carthy.”
On Tuesday night he will be playing his Martin Carthy-CF Martin Signature Guitar. It’s his working guitar. It’s based an a 000-18 Martin he bought in 1963 for 60 guineas that he played at every gig until 2002. “That particular guitar became a tired old lady and so it was great to receive an email suggesting we work together to create a Martin Carthy Signature Guitar based on my original.
“It’s really quite unique because it has a zero fret. CF Martin were taken a back when they saw a jpeg of my guitar. The guitar had been adapted by a British luthier many years previously. They created a mock up and now the guitar is available for one and all.
“They’ve done a great job – it’s funny because the PR guys justified the zero fret by saying I was European! That’s okay I don’t mind being called a European – I got the zero fret.”
With an incredible legacy to reflect upon – is folk as relevant today as it ever has been? “Of course it is. It’s about our stories – real stories. It’s not history as told by the winners.
“You know – there were so many musicians around in the Sixties and early Seventies and you expected new blood to come in but it seemed to skip a generation. At the end of the Eighties and Nineties there seemed to be an influx of musicians and today the place is crawling with a huge number of young, brilliant instrumentalists and singers too. I’m a song person at heart so I’m so pleased that more and more singers have emerged.”
It’s a great life. It’s a huge privilege. I can’t stop doing it – there’s far too much to find out
I ask him about his own work and how he feels about the future. “It’s a great life. It’s a huge privilege. I get the chance to do what I want to do – when I want to do it and there’s no reason to stop doing it. I can’t stop doing it – there’s far too much to find out.”
Martin Carthy is a gentleman and in the few minutes we spend with each other he is courteous and professional. It seems to me he’s learned his craft well – not just in terms of his music but in his ability to communicate and get a point of view across. He’s clearly a man who thinks hard about the words he uses before he says them. He’s not rushed and even after all these years of carrying a torch for the sometimes forgotten “folk genre” – he’s still curious.
This for me is the essence of “legendary status”. You’re only as good as your last gig and he has consistently come up with the goods – in an understated way. He see’s the future unfolding for himself and his fellow folk musicians and you get a feeling that he knows he’s played his part in folk history but he’s not ready to pass the torch just yet.
Long may he continue the musical journey he began 50 years ago. It feels like he’s just getting into his stride…
- Martin Carthy and Peter Robinson: Crimes and Ballads is at the National Centre for Early Music on Tuesday, March 19 from 7.30pm
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