Album of the Week, November 4: Martin Carthy
November 4, 2012 1 Comment
It’s no exaggeration to call Martin Carthy one of the most important figures in folk music in the past fifty years. He sang in coffee houses and collaborated with many of the seminal figures in the British folk revival of the late 50s. He famously worked with fiddler extraordinaire (and longtime Fairport Convention member) Dave Swarbrick, recording a dozen albums together. In the early 70s he married Norma Waterson, beginning a career-spanning partnership when he joined the family professionally as well; he has recorded as a member of the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy. He is part of the sometime folk supergroup Blue Murder and has been an occasional member of Steeleye Span and various incarnations of the Albion Band. Showing his love of experimentation, he co-founded Brass Monkey, a band dedicated to presenting traditional music with brass arrangements. Known best for his encyclopedic knowledge and respectful treatment of traditional music (for which he was awarded an MBE in 1998 and has won numerous awards), he has also influenced modern folk and singer-songwriters. Bob Dylan listed Carthy as an influence on Freewheelin’, two years before Carthy’s first solo album. The extended next generation of Watersons and Carthys, including Martin and Norma’s daughter Eliza, have charted new folk and pop territory. Throughout it all, he has recorded a stellar series of solo albums, occasionally including his own original compositions. This is the disc that started it all.
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Carthy worked with larger supporting casts, richer production, and occasional electric guitars on later albums, but the core of his music has always been what he set out on Martin Carthy. His clear, unadorned voice accompanied by his distinctive guitar work, honestly presenting powerful songs. On this debut — released by Fontana and later picked up by folk label Topic — that accounts for most of what you hear. Occasionally joined by Swarb’s superb fiddling (uncredited due to label difficulties), Carthy lays out 14 great tracks representing a broad spectrum of traditional themes.
At the center of the album is Scarborough Fair, a personal favorite of Carthy’s which captures the mystical spirit of a distinctly English folk. His arrangement of the song was later adopted by Paul Simon and became a hit in the U.S., although Simon neglected to credit Carthy for the better part of three decades. Carthy has revisited this song in many forms throughout his career.
The herbs of Scarborough Fair are a small part of the herbology of the disc. The Trees They Do Grow High uses said trees as a sad counterpoint to the early death of a young man. Broom growing on the hill gets its turn with its legendary powers to induce sleep, playing a key part in a very clever song of a woman triumphing over her over-enthusiastic suitor. Barley takes its place twice. First is The Barley and the Rye, a quick, clever tune of infidelity. The second is the tragic tune written by Robert Dwyer Joyce, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a song about loss and courage during the Irish rebellion at the end of the 18th Century.
The only other non-traditional track is Springfield Mine Disaster, written by another seminal folk figure, the mighty Ewan MacColl. As with Wind, it fits perfectly into the traditional canon Carthy explores, telling the story of tragedy and rescue.
The balance of the disc explores other powerful and traditional themes including beggars, sailors, women in disguise, faithless lovers, and love as a power to heal. Perhaps the most powerful track is the first, High Germany, a song of military conscription and lovers separated. It kicks off Carthy’s first disc with a clear pronouncement that what he has to say is well worth the listening. It’s also one of my favorite folk interpretations of all time.
There have been scores of recordings — with and without all manner of partners — since 1965. This launch is so powerful that it stands up behind them, proud and tall, well worth repeated visits.
FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to know where to turn with a career this long and creative. Free Reed has compiled a wonderful four-disc box, The Carthy Chronicles, that serves as a great overview of his music. A similar set of Watersons music, Mighty River of Song, is equally indispensable but sadly out of print. Fans of his work with Dave Swarbrick should look into Skin + Bone, their wonderful 1992 collaboration. Of his later work with family and friends, the Waterson:Carthy disc Broken Ground is a standout. For further solo discs, all have something to offer, although not all are as consistent as the debut. Standouts include Shearwater — which features his signature song The Famous Flower of Serving Men and some rare and tasty electric work — and the 1999 offering Signs of Life, a lovely return to some favorites mixed with surprising covers and a few traditional tracks Carthy hadn’t put to disc before.