Martin Carthy at 80: ‘Trial and error? I’ve built an entire career on it’

Martin Carthy
Martin Carthy had been due to tour in May but the lockdown put birthday celebrations on hold. Photo courtesy of Alan Bearman Music

When we spoke to Martin Carthy as he approached his 80th birthday on 21 May 2021, he was celebrating a successful 60-year career in music. “I’ve done all right really,” he says modestly, adding with a laugh: “I’ve been on a zero-hours contract in the gig economy!”

Early days in London

Martin was brought up in Hampstead, in a politically active socialist family. His father was a politician, trade unionist and local councillor. Both sides of his father’s family were Thames lightermen and he has lovely memories of riverboat trips. “When I knew Grandad he was one of the people who drove the pleasure boats on the Thames and we would often take advantage of it. I don’t know if we got a free ride every time. Usually we would go down to Greenwich but one time we went up to Hampton Court, which was a big adventure.”

For primary school, Martin attended St Paul’s school, Winchester Road. It was just around the corner from the Embassy theatre. This was Martin’s first encounter with the name of Ewan MacColl, whose play Uranium 235 was performed there in 1952.

Asking his father about it got little response because, being “very old Labour”, he disapproved of the Communist Party, of which MacColl was a member. At that point Martin had no idea that he would encounter MacColl again not so many years later. The theatre became part of the Central School of Speech and Drama where Martin’s sister was to train, “learning everything there was to learn about backstage”. She became a much sought after lighting expert.

On passing common entrance (or 11-plus as it became later) Martin followed in his father’s footsteps to St Olave’s grammar school for boys, which at that time was on Tooley Street, near London Bridge. The school provided choristers for both Southwark Cathedral and the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. Martin did not pass the audition for Southwark – “I was fairly grumpy about that,” he admits.

However, he was accepted at the Queen’s Chapel, where the music was “fabulous”. The master of music was Dr Henry Bromley Derry, of whom Martin still speaks with great respect. Martin was introduced to the English church repertoire of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and to the skill of sight singing.

‘Being an East End lad interested in playing the fiddle, my father would have played Irish music … but he never told me’

“I kidded myself that I could sightread music,” he says. “I could read an Orlando Gibbons piece but I think now that I just knew where it was going to go. Same with Tompkins and Weelkes, not so much Tallis though. That was tougher. Then when I was reasonably proud of my capacity as a sight reader someone stuck a piece of William Byrd in front of me and I drowned instantly. Fabulous music but might as well have been Chinese,” he laughs.

Once he got the hang of it he really enjoyed it but was relieved “to get back to Gibbons”. Martin loved the whole experience and still talks about that time with great enthusiasm and gratitude. It was only marred by an occasional “intrusion” of the Te Deum by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “which I really hated”.

While still at school, becoming interested in skiffle and blues, Martin picked up the guitar his father had “in the back room along with a fiddle which he said he used to play. I discovered 40 years later that being an East End lad, growing up between Stepney, Bow and Whitechapel and interested in playing the fiddle, he would have played Irish music … but he never told me. It completely bewildered me … but he really didn’t like the idea that I had gone into music.”

Martin says his father was very proud of him, especially when he started learning the classics, Greek and Latin. Although Martin enjoyed these subjects he did not go on to study at university as his father had hoped. Drawn to a different path, Martin left school to pursue his lifelong passion for music.

Finding folk

Martin was introduced to the blues courtesy of a schoolfriend’s father, “a working-class bloke who knew about working-class music”, making the connection through the music of Lead Belly. Martin later discovered that people such as Bob Copper adored records from the 1930’s which included the likes of Sleepy John Estes and some of “those old blues blokes”.

“It was what was available at this time,” Martin explains. “There was no English stuff available at that time. You might get Elton Hayes doing a very formalised version of The Unquiet Grave, which is just not as interesting as those old blues records are. It’s rough-and-tumble stuff but has wonderful rules and some utterly fabulous exponents that we didn’t have. So working-class people went for that.”

When Lonnie Donegan was top of the charts with Gamblin’ Man the friend’s father was scornful. “‘That’s ridiculous. It’s an Irish song,’ he said.” For Martin that rang something deep down. “This stuff has a history. I really connected with that idea.”

Less than two years later Martin made his first visit to the Ballads and Blues Club run by MacColl. He was encouraged to go by “an associate” who had conned his way on to the bill by claiming to have been in Canada collecting folksongs. However, it was on this visit that Martin heard Sam Larner, the Great Yarmouth fisherman and singer. Martin explains that MacColl was “introducing his very favourite singer, who was still alive, that he had met and understood and was working with”.

‘The EFDSS librarian would stare at you and say: “We are the guardians of the tradition and we are guarding it from you!”’

At this time MacColl would have been thinking about the Radio Ballads for the BBC. “Singing the Fishing was a long time cooking in his head,” comments Martin. “I was 17 and was absolutely skewered by this old bloke, 80 years old. He would announce a song and I’d think: ‘I know that one.’ Then he would start and it wasn’t what I knew. I knew Cecil Sharp’s Folk Songs for Schools and I was quite superior about them. But I was interested in finding out about that stuff.”

However, Cecil Sharp House was a no-go area. “They were very dance-orientated in those days and they didn’t trust us skifflers.” says Martin. “I have said it a million times and I’ll say it again, at that time the librarian would just stare at you and say: ‘We are the English Folk Dance and Song Society and we are the guardians of the tradition and we are guarding it from you!’”

This attitude made it impossible for a 17-year-old wanting to find out about English folksong. “Basically we were told to ‘bugger off! What do you know about it?’ ‘Nothing, that’s why I am here,’” continues Martin. “That was the unspoken plea in my eyes.”

Even after all these years Martin still says of the librarian with feeling: “He was horrible!” The arrival of a new librarian, Ruth Noyes, changed things for the better. Martin describes her as “sensational, a fabulous woman. She would pounce on you and point you towards books and this and that.”

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick
Martin playing with Dave Swarbrick for the 1975 BBC One adaptation of Chips With Everything. Photo: Doc Rowe

It was her suggestion that he should purchase the back issues of the Journal of the English Folk Song Society from 1899 to 1931, when the society merged with the English Folk Dance Society. “It cost a lot of money – £5! So I saved up and bought them. It was a real treasure trove. Best thing I ever did, apart from getting the Child Ballads in paperback when they were reprinted. It does wonders for your sight singing … four and five flats in the Dorian mode. For years I would sit there with the book and imagine the notes on the guitar. Then I learned how to read it.”

Martin’s way into understanding a song has always been to make musical sense of it on the guitar first. It was the playing of Big Bill Broonzy that first inspired Martin to learn to play the guitar “properly, in a traditional way”.

He admits: “I was a blues man who couldn’t do the singing. At heart I was still a chorister, not long out of the Queen’s Chapel.” Martin describes his early career as “a fascinating time, on the edge of the jazz world. I wanted to learn anything there was to know about the guitar but still wanted to be able to accompany English folksongs. This other stuff was just so exciting.”

Martin played regularly with the jazz guitarist Diz Disley at the Troubadour in Earls Court on a Saturday night. “Diz would say: ‘Learn this! We’ll play it tonight.’ At that age I was just like blotting paper so I learned this complicated stuff from the repertoire of Django Reinhardt.”

Martin joined the Thameside Four, who had a “massively mixed repertoire. Marion [Grey] sang a lot of gospel songs and Redd [Sullivan, who had been connected with the London Youth Choir] sang lots of shanties and had a repertoire of Australian songs, including a lot of new stuff that was being written in Oz.” Martin still talks about this time with great enthusiasm. “Everything was exciting!”

Moving on

Although Martin must have played in all the clubs and larger venues in London and the wider area over the decades, it has not been his home since he left for Wiltshire in 1968. “When my marriage collapsed I sofa surfed in London for a while. I did a lot of work in Yorkshire and sofa surfed there. Then I would get back to London, reluctantly.”

For a time he had a room in the house in which Maddy Prior and Tim Hart of Steeleye Span had a flat. He also lived in “Hans Fried’s place, the guy who ran Collet’s Record Shop in New Oxford St”. By 1972 Martin had made his home in Yorkshire with Norma Waterson, now his wife.

Martin has had many opportunities to sing in cathedrals, including Southwark. “Cathedrals are fabulous places to sing, they really are. They were built for music. It seems to me that it is almost impossible to sing out of tune.” He describes a performance with a nine-piece version of Waterson:Carthy at Beverley Minster singing a cappella.

“I was giving the chord for the key on my guitar. After the first song, for a laugh, I checked if we had stayed in tune and we were absolutely perfectly in tune.” So he then continued to check after each song. “We sang absolutely spot on for an hour, no deviation. It was just wonderful!”

Martin is full of admiration for the engineers and builders who “knew what to do by trial and error”. Laughing, he adds: “I am a big fan of trial and error. I’ve built an entire career on it! Lots of trials and lots of errors.”

When I asked Martin how he feels when someone says that they have learned a song from one of his recordings a slight frown crossed his face. “Well, I am pleased that they do learn the songs,” he says, “but I really wish they would go back and listen to ‘the old gits’, like Sam Larner, Walter Pardon, Harry Cox and learn from them. Really wonderful singers.”

Martin is always interested in other performers. He admired Long John Baldry, who could sing blues even as an 18-year-old when Martin first heard him. “He sang a field holler learned from a Lomax recording. He must have listened so closely for all the little details.” Martin says: “With the guitar I was training my ears like mad. Then I heard Elizabeth Cotten play Freight Train!” He was excited to talk about the African origins of the banjo and the music that represents for him “ordinary people finding their voice”.

Martin and Norma at Bampton in 1981. Photo: Doc Rowe

At a live gig, at a festival or a folk club, Martin can usually be found standing or “more often sitting these days” listening to other acts from the back of the audience. “Music and people are full of surprises,” he says. “You never know what you are going to hear.”

From his time touring folk clubs in the early 1960s, he remembers one particular singer at a club who was really dreadful. When Martin, “pleased to be booked again”, returned, maybe a year or so later, the same singer was still there. Much to Martin’s relief, he had improved enormously. “People are bloody brilliant,” he adds.

Alongside his solo career, Martin is well known as a member of successful bands and for collaborations, most notably with Dave Swarbrick. For Martin “the best ever” was being part of Waterson:Carthy, with Norma and their daughter Eliza Carthy, plus Saul Rose and later Tim van Eyken. “It was the easiest thing in the world,” he says “We just had to listen and follow Norma, follow the song. We were playing to the song rather than singing to the playing.”

Martin maintains that the song always comes first and the guitar must support the song. In Waterson:Carthy they were all learning together. “It was such fun, I learned so much and”, he adds, “I’m still learning.”

Off the road

Martin more or less “abandoned” music for seven months starting from the first lockdown in March 2020 to be with Norma. “She needed me to be here with her.” Last October he performed live at the Round Chapel in Hackney with Eliza – “we can hide behind each other a bit” – he says, describing it as “my most forgetting gig ever!” He is now “relearning” his own repertoire, relieved that he still has “guitarist’s corns” on his fingers so the process is not too painful. “You can’t ever take it for granted,” he adds.

Martin misses live performances and the feedback from an audience. He was always happy to do a set of any length required, enjoying the thrill and the satisfaction of following the thread of the songs through the set. At the time of the interview Martin was preparing for a solo Zoom gig for Live To Your Living Room a few days later. (It went well, not “much forgetting”, a wonderful set of songs … and a great shirt. Thank you, Martin.) He is still singing songs from the repertoire of Larner and songs he learned from the Folk Song Journal.

Hopes of touring to mark his 80th birthday have been dashed, and he thinks his celebrations will “be on hold” for the time being. When he turned 60, Christine Pegg organised a gig in Oxford, of which he has fond memories. For his 70th there was a gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London at which Martin sounded “as relaxed as if he were in a folk club”, according to Robin Denselow in the Guardian.

On reflection Martin feels he has been very lucky to have been around when all “the folk clubs were just emerging” and to have had “60 good years” in music – adding, with a little rueful laugh: “Well, 59. The 60th one is not so good!”

That said, Martin is still listening and learning and still so excited by music and people. We wish him a very happy birthday.

This article appeared in Folk London 312, April-May 2021