The Living Tradition
Martin Carthy by Alan Murray
After a lifetime's singing (although, by his own account, with a good many more years still left), Martin Carthy is surely entitled to take a pause from time to time, to reflect upon where he is and on where, perhaps, he still has to go.
He could, of course, not bother to reflect upon either of these things; slippers, a cosy fireside and the prospect of endless, agreeable torpor might appeal instead. But they don't silly to think that they might, really, because whatever else he is, Martin is an old 60s kid. The 60's released him from the post-war dreariness and lack of indigenous culture of the 50's, ("not remotely interesting" he says!), and, like others of his time, he still carries the unique idea that things, and particularly traditional songs, should be done and sung and should be exciting.
When singing's at issue, particularly, hes not content with comfortable, well-worn songs and familiar arrangements. He is positively driven to learn new material. As a matter of fact, he's just been (re)learning 'Doffin Mistress'; but not as other people might. He's done it in B flat, with his guitar tuned to CGCDGA! As any experienced guitarist will tell you, thats hard work.
"It's actually irritation that gets me learning a new song - sitting here thinking about it!" he says, "I'll revisit old ones, of course. There are some unusual things on "Signs of Life", for instance, like 'Heartbreak Hotel'. People ask me to do that one live, but I won't because its not taken seriously (although it's a very good, sad song). I did it in San Francisco once, a great mistake. The sound-engineer just put on a huge echo and made a comic song out of it. Im just amazed that this woman called Mae Boren Axton wrote it. Because of Elvis, its become a joke but its one of the few decent songs he ever recorded. It's a bit like a few of Richard Thompson's songs, 'The Ghost Of You Walks' for example, using pretty extreme imagery to great effect."
Martin and I were discussing the use of extreme imagery in song-writing - hence the Thompson connection via the above and 'Dimming of the Day'. "Mae Boren Axton had the same genius. She passed it to her son, Hoyt, too. She died just last year, incidentally, aged 90."
One song that he has revisited passionately is one of his pivotal songs 'Prince Heathen'. Its arguably impossible to understand Martin at all as a musician without understanding this song and his attitude to singing it
"I've always done various things to it never stopped doing, as a matter of fact, because the more you go back to songs like that, the more they reveal. I first heard it 30 years ago. I always say this, but its true - the first 5 years I sang it all I saw was red, just red. Id start singing it and this red appeared, I was hallucinating. It wasnt the insides of my eyelids, it wasnt drugs and it wasnt booze. I never knew Brenda Wooton (whom I first heard singing it) until the 70's, and she said "sing Prince Heathen". Afterwards she said "That songs a bit like being in your own bloodstream, isnt it?" Couple that with me seeing red all the time! Its a terrifying song and a hugely important one. I think theres very few songs in the whole canon that are mens or womens songs, but that's a mens song. Im not surprised that women do it - but Im very surprised that more men dont. Its a very important song for men - that word 'No' is a very important word for them to understand. The song goes to such extraordinary lengths on the way. Its about firmness in the truth. Mahatma Ghandi got very annoyed when people described what he did as passive resistance. "Nothing passive about it", he said - it was "firmness in the truth", and thats what 'Prince Heathen' has got. That and 'Famous Flower' must be what you called my 'pivotal songs', both important to me."
Other songs excite him, too. 'The Famous Flower' has already been mentioned. Then there's 'Willie's Lady'.
"I'll never forget when first I started to sing 'Willies Lady' (it was Ray Fishers fault!). I straightaway became aware that it was a mighty engine - and that it probably hadnt been sung for 200 years. When its that old and needs so tiny a kick-start to spring into life and take you over again, youre dealing with a pretty (expletive deleted!) fearsome engine - and if youre not excited about that, whats the matter with you?! I realise that the more I do, the less I know. When songs keep revealing new bits, you suddenly find yourself in a different world. Id been singing 'Famous Flower' for at least 10 years when I suddenly understood the line about "I dreamed I saw my bed swim with blood". It suddenly dawned on me that of all the things that would terrify a woman whos trying to disguise herself as a man and live as a man, in fear of her life, a bloody sheet is number one! I sang that for 10-12 years before it dawned on me. It would dawn on a woman right away, but Im a bloke and it takes longer! Songs give you these new revelations every once in a while. The older I get, the more I realise how bloody brilliant people are. They wrote this stuff, then they had the imagination to write it down and keep it. Theres no way you can get blasé, because their songs will suddenly give something you didnt know was there."
To Martin, 'not being blasé' is about having an essential reverence for songs as well. He doesn't see himself, or anybody else who sings, as being at the end of history. "I'd dismiss that idea as a 'me generation' thing", he says. "We're all part of history. Look at the song 'Doffin Mistress'. It tells you something about your past - people have been oppressed and thats why you sing such a song. Theres always going to be bastards that will oppress people like that and weve just gone through 18 years when Unions have been bashed into the ground. People get sacked without compensation. Our Sarah worked on YOP schemes and when she went on to the eighth she realised that she was just being used as cheap labour, good old-fashioned exploitation. Thats what the 'Doffin Mistress' is about, people refusing to be exploited: "Well do this for Elsie Thompson, but not for you", in other words 'up yours!'. So, you bet I'll sing the song!"
Singing is Martins day job, of course - but it's much more. "Musicians can't give up", he reflects. "People sometimes say "relax and do your hobby" - well, music is mine, already. All my life I've done music and song and I intend to do it until I drop dead. I complain about being knackered, aches and pains, but somehow the more knackered I am when I get to a gig, the bigger kick I get from it. These songs are wonderful, unique things. I hate this idea that everythings got to sound the same... it doesnt sound modern... it does, of course it does. Im of the year 2000 and Im playing for the year 2000. Imaginations the thing. I remember the 1950s and it was bloody dull. Lonnie Donegan started something in 1956 and all Lonnies children bloomed in the 1960's. I think "Thank Christ for the 60's". Lonnie up-ended all the pseudo-American stuff, the crooners. He was the trigger for a lot of us and he can still out-sing Van Morrison Sorry Van you shouldn't have taken Lonnie on!"
Typically, Martin sees what he does as being given a privilege; he knows the influence that he's had, but (apologising for the cliché) puts it down to 'standing on the shoulders of giants': "It's the reason I stayed playing the clubs since the 60's. Through them, as they opened and shut and opened again, I discovered what I wanted to perform. I've had an audience for 40 years that would pay and listen and let me walk up blind alleys, fall flat on my face and make a fool of myself, learn things, unlearn things, try another way. Theyve allowed all of us to do that. Can you think of a better reason to do something? Theoretically, this folk scene has no business to exist, 'cos its all run by amateurs. It has no logic. Its all done by people who love it. Some have business sense and others dont. Sometimes they learn, sometimes they dont but it's ours. Thats what that MBE thing is about and thats not bullshit. I took it for thousands of reasons: and they all ran folk clubs, and they all fed me and put me on the train... thats who they are. They love the music, so do I. My part of it has been going on for 40 years, and if I live to be a hundred, I'll have done it for 80 years and that's a privilege."
Lady sits in
her garden fair, sewing her silken seam
lady will you weep for me. Lady tell me true"
She turned her
around and aloud did cry "Begone I love not you"
laid her all on the ground, between himself and the wall
Oh I slew your
father in his bed and your mother by his side
lay you in a vault of stone, with thirty locks upon
laid her in a vault of stone with thirty locks upon
he from the mountain came, with his merry men all in a line
Oh meat nor
drink youll never get nor out of prison come
Her time came
on and further on. In labour there she lay
laid her all on the green and his merry men stood around
a drink" the young girl cries, "all from Prince Heathens
to me a silken shawl or a blanket or a sheet
lend you an old horse blanket for to wrap him head and feet"
you not give any better thing than a horse blanket or a sheet
borne her up so very soft, borne her up so slow
lady will you weep for me. Lady tell me true"
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