Song of the Day, July 7: Queen of Hearts

MCarthyQueenUnthanksLastQueenToday’s song is two strikingly different interpretations of a traditional tune. Queen of Hearts (Roud 3195), comes from English broadsides collected near Plymouth. The tune dates back to the reign of Charles II. It’s a song of romantic peril and obsession, told with sparse detail but deep emotion.

Martin Carthy included a stirring, spare version on his debut album. In clear, bell-like tones, he offers the narrative as a lament. Nearly 50 years later, the Unthanks included their version on their fine album Last. Lush and quiet, it’s evocative in a completely different way. The sisters offer an urgent aching vocal over a swirling bed of strings and piano, conjuring up the turmoil of abandoning a safe life for a risky romance. Both approaches work extremely well, showing the power of a traditional tune, open for interpretation.

Enjoy Queen of Hearts by Martin Carthy and by the Unthanks today.

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Song of the Day, July 3: Happiness by Eliza and Martin Carthy

CarthyElephantHappinessToday’s song is a family affair. Martin Carthy has been performing and recording for over 50 years; his daughter Eliza  for two dozen. They’ve worked on a number of projects together, but never created an album as a duo. After Eliza’s wonderful 2010 duo album with her mother Norma Waterson, Gift, she and her father began to plan their own duo. After selecting 11 songs — mostly traditional — they worked up a method of preparing the tracks to keep them fresh. The Moral of the Elephant features vocals from both Carthys, Martin’s guitar, and Eliza’s fiddle, a spare sound that lets the songs speak for themselves.

A standout is Happiness, written by Molly Drake. Best known as the mother of Nick Drake, she was an unpublished poet and songwriter whose style had a significant impact on her son. Since interest in his work has surged in the 21st Century, some attention has come to her work as well. Nineteen songs that she played at home on piano were recorded by her husband, Rodney. They were released as Molly Drake in 2013, 20 years after her death.

Eliza observes that the songs are

full of an old Englishness, of musing and reminiscences, childhood, picnics in the woods, and emotional and humorous intelligence beautifully expressed to a piano I can’t help but see in a drawing room bathed in afternoon light. It’s all very romantic, and now never far from my stereo. I may be mellowing, she may be helping.

The Carthy duo create a lovely treatment of this sweet song. Enjoy their performance today.

Song of the Day, April 29: Poor Wayfaring Stranger by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson

WCGiftStrangerToday’s song is The Wayfaring Stranger. It’s a gospel-tinged American folk song [Roud 3339] dating to the early 19th Century. The narrator is a troubled soul, doing her best to get by in a world of troubles and looking forward to peace in the end. The song has been recorded many times by a wide array of artists and was recognized by the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western Songs in 2010.

I enjoy a wide variety of interpretations of this song.

  • Burl Ives recorded a version in 1944 and it became one of his signature songs.
  • Legendary folk singer and song historian Almeda “Granny” Riddle also included the song in her collections over the years.
  • Emmylou Harris recorded a version on her 1980 album Roses In the Snow and released it as a successful single [#7 Country].
  • Neko Case included a stirring version on her 2004 album The Tigers Have Spoken.

On the other side of the pond, Martin Carthy sang the song on Sydney Carter’s television program Hallelujah in 1966; that version was included in the album released to celebrate the show’s musical themes. Over 40 years later, Carthy’s wife and daughter turned in my favorite take on the song.

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson released their first album as a recording duo in 2010. The lead-off track was a beautiful take on the song (using its alternate title) that Liza describes this way:

…this one comes from Mam and Aidan [Curran] sitting having a tune one night. Aidan led the arrangement, right down to trying to tell Danny Thompson what to play without being too scared.

Family member Marry Waterson provides haunting harmonies that round out the song. Enjoy this lovely rendition of a classic folk tune today.

Song of the Day, February 25: Dominion of the Sword by Martin Carthy

MCarthySwordToday’s song is Dominion of the Sword from Martin Carthy’s powerful 1988 album Right of Passage. He based the song on a ballad written in 1649 by an anonymous pamphleteer, adapting the lyrics to fit the politics and events of the times. It’s a smart reflection on the relative power of words and force to influence events, sung with great energy to a tune adapted from a Breton piping figure.

Enjoy this pithy look at the world today.

Song of the Day, November 6: Nothing Rhymed

CarthyBecauseRhymeToday’s song is Nothing Rhymed, written in 1970 by Gilbert O’Sullivan. It helped break his British career, peaking at #8 there, although it bubbled under the U.S. Hot 100 at #114. He went on to larger success on both sides of the Atlantic with the smash Alone Again, Naturally in 1972.

Nothing Rhymed is a very topical song, contrasting social inaction with the power of small acts of kindness and the growing interconnections of the information age.

When I’m drinking my Bonaparte Shandy
Eating more than enough apple pies
Will I glance at my screen and see real human beings
Starve to death right in front of my eyes

Martin Carthy adapted it for his 1979 album, Because It’s There, continuing his long habit of picking up great newer songs to interlace with the traditional material for which he is best known. O’Sullivan’s wry wordplay ranks this song nicely with the Leon Rosselson tracks and Carthy originals that populate so many of his albums.Carthy is in fine voice, supported by the charming accordion work of John Kirkpatrick.

In the CD reissue, Carthy observed of the song:

In a rare waking moment, the former President of the USA, Mr. Calvin Coolidge, was heard to cry out to the effect that half the world’s problems would be solved if only people would sit down and keep still. Nothing Rhymed is a song that was written by Gilbert O’Sullivan which is, among other things, about just that and attendant problems.

Nicely put. Enjoy this wry gem today.

Song of the Day, August 19: Arthur McBride and the Sergant by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

princeheathen_cdToday’s song Arthur McBride and the Sergeant, a traditional tune (Roud 2355) made famous by the legendary folk collaboration of vocalist and guitarist Martin Carthy and fiddler supreme Dave Swarbrick. By 1969, both men were at the top of their craft, well established as leading lights in the British folk revival. Swarb was becoming enmeshed in Fairport Convention, so their fifth album together (the third on which they shared label credit), the sublime Prince Heathen, was their last formal collaboration for many years.

The disc kicks off with Arthur McBride, one of their best shared tracks. Also known as The Recruiting Sergeant, it takes the stock tale of involuntary enlistment and knocks it — fairly literally — on its ear. The singer and his friend, Arthur McBride, are out for a lovely morning stroll when they are greeted by a military trio. The Sergeant offers them a signing fee to join the Army, which they decline. When he threatens them with violence if they do not comply, the pair knock them aside and stride away free men.

Swarb, known for his astounding versatility with the fiddle, provides an especially crisp, martial line to move the song along. Carthy delivers one of his most biting vocals, the barely restrained anger lightened only by the joy of the crisp morning walk. It’s an inspired performance that ranks high in the careers of two legendary performers.

Enjoy this delightful performance today.

Song of the Day, June 26: Ultrasound by Wood Wilson Carthy

woodwilsoncarthyToday’s song is Ultrasound, written and sung by graphic designer turned folk musician Roger Wilson. It appears on the wonderful trio album Wood Wilson Carthy. The legendary Martin Carthy — always a willing collaborator — partnered with Wilson and Chris Wood, another younger British folkie, to create this powerful mix of traditional and modern songs. Carthy does not actually perform on this track.

Ultrasound was inspired by Wilson’s first glimpse of his unborn daughter. He marvels at the person he will come to know and at the technology that makes it possible. The lyrics are a lovely mix of wistfulness and celebration, natural and technical. Wilson delivers it with quiet grace, lending it just the right air of wonder.

No complete version of the song is available online, but it is very worth tracking down. Enjoy the teaser on this page today.

Song of the Day, May 1: Midnight On the Water by Waterson:Carthy

WCMidnightToday’s song is Midnight On the Water. Like the Country standard Tennessee Waltz, this is a song about a song. In this case, however, writer Ron Kavana built a beautiful celebration of music and love around a real song. Midnight On the Water is a traditional tune, adapted by and often attributed to Lewis Thomasson, usually played on the fiddle. Kavana used that tune as the basis of his song, adding original lyrics that celebrate the power of music to free us from ourselves and help us enjoy the company of our loved ones.

When Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson formed Waterson:Carthy with their daughter, Eliza Carthy, they included this wonderful song on their first album. Eliza’s friend and frequent collaborator, Nancy Kerr, adds fiddle power along with Jock Tyldesley, emphasizing the significance of that instrument in Kavana’s narrative. With Norma on lead vocals, it’s one of the best songs recorded by this iteration of the extended family and a delightful performance overall.

I never thought much of that fancy dancing
With my two left feet and my roving eye.
But when the band plays that slow air in three-four time,
I could dance with my darling until morning comes.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, March 12: The Flash Lad by Brass Monkey

BrassMonkeyToday’s song is The Flash Lad by Brass Monkey. This unusual band performed traditional British songs with guitar, accordion, and the unexpected addition of trumpet, trombone, and saxophone. Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick — who had worked together in Steeleye Span and as part of the larger British folk community — put together the group after working with trumpeter Howard Evans. They brought a new spirit and energy to the songs and a sense of fun to their live gigs.

The Flash Lad is part of a family of songs (Roud 490) that includes Newlyn Town and Adieu, Adieu. Both Carthy and Kirkpatrick had performed various versions of the song before Brass Monkey tackled the Flash Lad incarnation. The common thread throughout the songs is a criminal who is caught and punished, regretting (and often repenting) his crimes while decrying the harsh behavior of those who enforce the laws. This song includes reference to novelist Henry Fielding, who also served as a magistrate, heading a notorious gang who enforced the law with stunning brutality.

Carthy’s vocal is charmingly perfect, and the instrumental accompaniment is flawless. Enjoy this live version, showing off the band at their finest.

Song of the Day, December 23: Scarborough Fair by Martin Carthy

CarthySFairToday’s song is Scarborough Fair. It’s a very old traditional song (Roud 12, Child #2) with many versions; the foundation of the song is known as The Elfin Knight. The principle players are a demon or elf lord and a fair maiden, engaged in a contest. Across the versions it is either a battle for salvation, a riddle contest for romance, or something complexly situated between the two. Many folk legends have recorded versions of the song, but the most famous is probably the arrangement that Martin Carthy used for his stunning 1965 debut album. His stark delivery and poignant guitar line underscore the tension between the pair beautifully. Carthy explains his interpretation in the liner notes:

Folklorists and students of plant mythology are well aware that certain herbs were held to have magical significance—that they were used by sorcerers in their spells and conversely as counter-spells by those that wished to outwit them. The herbs mentioned in the refrain of Scarborough Fair (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) are all known to have been closely associated with death and also as charms against the evil eye. The characters in the Elfin Knight (of which Scarborough Fair is a version) are a demon and a maid. The demon sets impossible tasks and on the maid’s replies depends whether she will fall into his clutches or not.

Carthy famously taught this arrangement to Paul Simon while he was in London. Simon and Garfunkel later paired it Simon’s anti-war song Canticle and had a significant chart hit. He neglected to include a “traditional” credit on the recording, leading to a decades-long falling out with Carthy.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Enjoy this magical song today.

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