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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
 

Martin Carthy 70th Birthday Concert
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, May 14th 2011

Martin Carthy, grand old man of English folk music, is about to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Whenever you read about Carthy a couple of stories always come to the fore.  There’s the one about teaching Bob Dylan tunes such as ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Lord Franklin’, which were subsequently Dylanised as ‘Girl from the north country’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s dream’.  And the Paul Simon story, where Carthy’s arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’ was appropriated in a less gentlemanly way. 

Martin Carthy

These anecdotes (we’re treated to a very amusing one about Bob Dylan, a cold winter, a piano and a Samurai sword) are all well and good  but  tend to obscure Carthy’s huge influence on music and musicians around the Western world, and possibly beyond.  So here’s what composer, performer and producer Van Dyke Parks recently had to say about Martin Carthy: “my favourite British musician …is Martin Carthy. Nothing more exemplary or beautiful has ever come out of England than the works of Martin Carthy. They protect and define England. So I must admit that is my secret love. It's the street sensibility, the roots, that I love ….”

Martin and Eliza Carthy

Eliza and Martin Carthy

There’s a lot of South Bank love for Carthy tonight:  dads and lads, sons and mums, the usual folk club crew, and the now-familiar younger funky folksters too, a suitably rich and varied audience to celebrate such a distinguished career.   Introduced by his daughter, Eliza Carthy (“he’s a wonderful man for looking after my mum, and for looking after me”) Carthy  performed the first half of the show by himself, reminiscing, mostly about the songs and where he found or learned them, as he went.  Starting with ‘Jim Jones’, the song of a defiant convict transported to Australia for poaching, ‘Bill Norrie’ (child murder, and possibly a bit of incest too), ‘Long John’ (love, kidnap, near-execution and redemption) and ‘Georgie (the execution of a child poacher), Carthy laid bare the darker side of English folk music that inhabits many of his songs.  This reflects, he explained in an interview in the Guardian shortly before the concert, the ‘subversive’ nature of these very English songs: "when I started out, the folk scene was a highly political affair, but I didn't understand until later the way in which English folk music has a subversive quality which creeps in under the door. It gets under your skin. And so I have come to realise the value of folk music as our collective understanding of the value of subversion for and of itself."  None more subversive, in his opinion, than “the jewel in our crown”, the relentlessly brutal and brutalising ‘Prince Heathen’, the tale of a woman who refused to shed a tear no matter how cruelly she was treated, which closed the first half.  “The song goes to such extraordinary lengths ... it’s about firmness in the truth” said Carthy in an interview with Living Tradition.  According to the interviewer  “it’s arguably impossible to understand Martin at all as a musician without understanding this song and his attitude to singing it…”

The second half began with a little more levity as Tom Robinson, much admired as a composer by Carthy, took the stage and sang  Steve Knightley’s ‘The cold heart of England’, his own ‘Blood brother’, recorded by Carthy when he was with Band of Hope, and, as a bit of a sing-along, ‘Martin’.  Eliza Carthy then sang ‘Lofty tall ships’ and ‘The bows of London’ ( a very sad case of fratricide, just for good measure), before performing solo ‘The snow it melts the soonest’ and ‘Yonder comes the morning’. 

Carthy returned with career-long collaborator, the famously deceased Dave Swarbrick.  A very lively (and characteristically mischievous) Swarbrick fiddled his way with Carthy through a handful of tunes including the glorious ‘Byker Hill’, one of Carthy’s career-defining songs.  And finally of course we endure the ensemble rendition of ‘I shall be released’, dedicated (rather gratuitously I felt) to architect and prisoner of conscience Ai Weiwei, before Carthy returned again with his famous interpretation of the Harry Lime theme.

Martin Dave
With Dave Swarbrick

And finally a word about Carthy’s guitar.  It’s not just the songs nor the wonderful singing that make Carthy stand apart.  His guitar work, trademark picking of melodies on a CGCDGA tuning, is quite unique.  For most of the evening he played his Martin, wonderfully resonant and perfectly suited to his percussive and melodic style of playing.  And even if, like most of us, you can never aspire to play like Carthy, you can now aspire to own a ‘signature’ guitar just like his.  If you can ever find one, that is: made by Martin in 2003, you’ll have to search hard and have several thousands of quids in your pocket for this one.  Maybe better advised simply to spend a few quids on some of Carthy’s CDs and enjoy the work of one of the UK’s finest guitarists and interpreters of ‘traditional’ songs, ever. – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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