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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 60’s 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, he’s 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, that’s 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 it’s 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. I’m just amazed that this woman called Mae Boren Axton wrote it. Because of Elvis, it’s become a joke but it’s 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'. It’s 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 it’s true - the first 5 years I sang it all I saw was red, just red. I’d start singing it and this red appeared, I was hallucinating. It wasn’t the insides of my eyelids, it wasn’t drugs and it wasn’t 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 song’s a bit like being in your own bloodstream, isn’t it?" Couple that with me seeing red all the time! It’s a terrifying song and a hugely important one. I think there’s very few songs in the whole canon that are men’s or women’s songs, but that's a men’s song. I’m not surprised that women do it - but I’m very surprised that more men don’t. It’s 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. It’s 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 that’s 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 'Willie’s Lady' (it was Ray Fisher’s fault!). I straightaway became aware that it was a mighty engine - and that it probably hadn’t been sung for 200 years. When it’s that old and needs so tiny a kick-start to spring into life and take you over again, you’re dealing with a pretty (expletive deleted!) fearsome engine - and if you’re not excited about that, what’s 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. I’d 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 who’s 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 I’m 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. There’s no way you can get blasé, because their songs will suddenly give something you didn’t 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 that’s why you sing such a song. There’s always going to be bastards that will oppress people like that and we’ve 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. That’s what the 'Doffin Mistress' is about, people refusing to be exploited: "We’ll do this for Elsie Thompson, but not for you", in other words 'up yours!'. So, you bet I'll sing the song!"

Singing is Martin’s 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 everything’s got to sound the same... it doesn’t sound modern... it does, of course it does. I’m of the year 2000 and I’m playing for the year 2000. Imagination’s the thing. I remember the 1950’s and it was bloody dull. Lonnie Donegan started something in 1956 and all Lonnie’s 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. They’ve 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 it’s all run by amateurs. It has no logic. It’s all done by people who love it. Some have business sense and others don’t. Sometimes they learn, sometimes they don’t but it's ours. That’s what that MBE thing is about and that’s 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... that’s 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."

Prince Heathen

Lady sits in her garden fair, sewing her silken seam
And by there come this Prince Heathen and he vowed her love he’d gain

"Oh lady will you weep for me. Lady tell me true"
"Ah never yet you heathen dog. And never shall for you"

She turned her around and aloud did cry "Begone I love not you"
And then he vowed him Prince Heathen that she would weep full sore
O lady will you weep for me...

So he’s laid her all on the ground, between himself and the wall
And there he’s stripped her of her will and her maidenhead and all
O lady will you weep for me...

Oh I slew your father in his bed and your mother by his side
And seven brothers one by one. I drowned them in the tide
O lady will you weep for me...

Oh I’ll lay you in a vault of stone, with thirty locks upon
And meat nor drink you will never get, ‘til your baby it is born
O lady will you weep for me...

So he’s laid her in a vault of stone with thirty locks upon
And he’s taken the key in his right hand, to the mountain he has gone
O lady will you weep for me...

Prince Heathen he from the mountain came, with his merry men all in a line
And he sought out this fair young maid down in her vault of stone
"And how d’you do and do you weep, lady tell me true"
"Ah, never weeping heathen dog but dying here for you"

Oh meat nor drink you’ll never get nor out of prison come
Oh meat nor drink you will never get, ‘til your baby it is born
O lady will you weep for me...

Her time came on and further on. In labour there she lay
She laboured up she laboured down but lighter she could not be
"O lady will you weep for me...

So he’s laid her all on the green and his merry men stood around
And how they laughed and how they mocked as she brought forth her son
O lady will you weep for me...

"A drink a drink" the young girl cries, "all from Prince Heathen’s hand"
"Oh never a drop" Prince Heathen cries, "’til ye wrap up your son"

"Then lend to me a silken shawl or a blanket or a sheet
That I may wrap this little baby that lies in my arms asleep"

"Oh I’ll lend you an old horse blanket for to wrap him head and feet"
And there as she took it in her hand, So bitter she did weep
O lady will you weep for me...

"Could you not give any better thing than a horse blanket or a sheet
To wrap and swaddle your own young son that lies in my arms asleep"

"He’s borne her up so very soft, borne her up so slow
He’s laid her down in a soft green bed so dearly he loved her now

"O lady will you weep for me. Lady tell me true"
"Oh never yet you heathen dog. And never now for you

Alan Murray

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