Folk Festival Photo Collage
Original Drawing by Gary Undercuffler
A Conversation with Martin Carthy
Reprinted from The Folk Life Quarterly, Vol. III, #3
A Conversation with Martin Carthy [A few words about the following transcribed-tape interview with Martin Carthy. and then well let you get to Martin himself.
This conversation developed at Croton Point's Hudson River Revival Festival, where wed had a great time listening to Martin singing with the Watersons. We asked if hed talk to us for publication, and, polite as ever, he agreed. Along the way to the interview, which took place in the cabin where Martin and the Watersons - wife Lal, her sister Norma, and brother-in-law Mike (who butted in with cheerful parables about "serendipity") were staying -- we got talking about the forum that The Folk Life represents. Martin's as careful a listener as he is a speaker, and so when we asked if he'd mind spelling a bit of his background for readers of our publication, he obligingly agreed to do so.
The talk ranged widely, the taped portion going to an hour and a half, and continued well beyond that. North Carolinas Greengrass Cloggers kept all of us that night, accompanied by Chicagos Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, Martin Carthy grinning at a Scotsmans attempt at clogging, and the following morning at breakfast Mike Waterson proceeded to offer me a beer, which I tried to juggle with my orange juice and black coffee, an act so smooth it brought orange juice down my nose when he commented pitilessly on my suavete.
Anyway. That's the kind of social context out of which this talk arose, and I hope you get the sense from it that I admire and respect Martin Carthy the man as much as I do Martin the minstrel and Morris dance musician and ballad singer. Once he understood he was talking to upstate deer hunters and apple farmers as well as to readers of the Journal of American Folklore and Sing Out! Magazine, he proceeded to unfold the following tale]:
John: We're talking with Martin Carthy, in the hut that hes occupying with the rest of The Watersons, at the Croton Point Hudson River Revival Festival, June 17, 1978, and Id like to ask you, Martin, for some of those readers of The Folk Life, the deer hunters or upstate farmers, for instance -- to say something about where you come from, so we can put this discussion in that kind of context.
Martin: I was born in Hatfield, in a hospital that was evacuated out of London, and we were evacuated a couple of times. But I kept getting ill, and we had to come back into London. I was much happier where the bombs were apparently. Oh well. Then what happened? I went to school in Hampstead, to grammar school, down by Tower Bridge, right down by the docks. I was singing a little bit. I was a chorister. And I played piano a little bit, about age six, but mightily unsuccessfully. And I was a chorister from 11 to about 16 or 17, and during that time I took up the trumpet, at which I was unsuccessful. The euphonium, at which I was unsuccessful. The trombone, at which I was only marginally less unsuccessful.
John: Such a tragic series of failures in your young life!
Martin: Well, while I was playing the trombone, I discovered the guitar, because of Lonnie Donegan, and I was in a skiffle group in school, like thousands of others were -- probably you were --
John: No, I was at sea during all that --
Martin: and when the skiffle bubble burst, I just carried on playing the guitar, and drifted into the folk music scene, which was at that time rather small. You do tend to find out the people youre interested in, like you do. Hm.
Martin: That's what happened to me. I was at school with a chap called Joe Lloyd, the son of Bert Lloyd I didnt know who Bert Lloyd was at that time and I left school, I dropped out, because I was studying classics and in plain fact not enjoying the fact that we were seen as exam fodder and result fodder. At that time there was the battle for the grammar schools going on, and the schools had to show results, and I dropped out of that. I mean, the headmaster was actually quite a nice bloke, but he was one of the leaders of the fight for the grammar schools, and he just became, you know, fanatic about his exam results.
John: I always felt that was one of the worst features of the British school system, that it was very exam oriented.
Martin: It is really isnt it? Anyway, I decided that I wanted to go into theatre -- I was playing guitar at the time, instead of doing my homework and I went into theatre for about 18 months, then came out of that, and was out of work and began playing my guitar and singing in coffee bars and went on from there.
John: Just like that.
John: Who did you make your first record with?
Martin: Fontana. That's the small jazz-cum-folk-and a bit of pop subsidiary of Phillips International. That was during the so-called folk boom about 1965,when hootenannies had taken on in a big way, over here, and people thought it would be the next big thing in England. And it wasnt, but they thought they would find something and market it and sort of follow on. But then the fact that the television series and the radio series were on, and people actually did make records and so on, actually did draw a few more people into it than would otherwise have done so.
John: You could get involved for bad reasons, and then find the good reasons once you were in.
Martin: Exactly. Or get involved for no reason. as I did. I mean I went down to The Troubadour, and I heard Seamus Ennis, and I said, "What is THAT!" And that did attract me.
John: Why was that? Do you think there was something in your background that made you respond to his singing, some musical -- I mean, Seamus Ennis is not conventionally "pretty" or "attractive" music, is it?
Martin: Oh, no. I don't really know. I mean, maybe one was rebelling for all the usual Freudian reasons, and that was one reason, rebelling against the received ideas of pretty and attractive music. But I do know that it struck a responsive chord, on the instant. I mean, I never saw Jack Elliott until much later.
John: I think Jack Elliott was more publicly visible in Europe than he was in this country during that period.
Martin: Yes. He was over in Paris, and in London singing on the streets quite a bit, and -- in the folk scene -- was quite "big".
John: Would it be jumping a bit -- I mean, in time -- to ask you about the beginnings of Steeleye Span?
Martin: Not at all. Well, I wasnt involved at the very beginning, not directly. I was just around, you know. And they announced they were going to form this group that was going to go electric. And we said, "Oh, Really?" And they did it. And they went into the studio and they made their first album, and before theyd finished it they'd broken up. Well, theyd done the thing that one did at the time, 69-- they'd taken a cottage together. And they found that musically they might have been compatible, but socially, they just couldnt make it!
John: That's a pressure cooker, that kind of thing theres no privacy. .
Martin:Exactly -- it certainly is. The first album came out, but its actually incomplete on some tracks its just Tim and Maddy. Then I got a phone call from Tim, and he asked, "How do you fancy joining the band?" And I said, "Yes," because -- well, I could have said yes or no, but I said "Yes." I mean you never do it for a reason -- at least, I never do! (Laughter) It just sounded like a good idea, so I did it. Very enjoyable it was too. It took a bit of time, because none of us were used to playing with those instruments, and we just had to get used to the mechanics of it.
John: I've heard Judy Collins, with a version of "Pretty Polly," and she has electric piano, organ, electric guitar -- I think she has Mike Bloomfield on it -- and it's really a fine, eerie version of "Pretty Polly." But she also has a version of "Lord Gregory" on another album, with just a single cello accompaniment. And it is equally lovely. I mean, the instrumentation doesn't seem to be the point..
Martin: Exactly! Folk instrumentation is what folk play. If people in the countryside have access to saxophones or electric guitars or tin whistles -- thats what theyll play.
John: I was wondering if you think theres some incompatibility, in decibel level, in some cases when its just too bloody loud?
Martin: I think it depends very much on the whole -- I know what you're getting at, yes, in a sense, when you have quiet pastoral songs and you have 98 or 120 decibels- theres is a contradiction or paradox there.
John: Drum kits bother me.
Martin: They do? They dont bother me.
John: Well, maybe it's the drummer. I mean Charlie Watts is a great drummer, and he fits right in with what the Rolling Stones do. But, for example, there was an American group called Seatrain, with Richard Greene?
Martin: I know Seatrain, I know Richard Greene.
John: Okay. I thought they were great except for that drummer, who just went boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick --fair drove me nuts in no time. Well, maybe its just the execution of the drums.
Martin: Yes, well if you have drummers they tend to play rock and roll, because that's generally what they know. But on the other hand I tend to think bands are best when they play what they know best. Its a fine Im in a bit of a -- I also agree with people who say, "If you want to play a certain kind of music, then you get people and you teach them how to play that." But I do like to hear people play what they like best. In the most recent Steeleye, the drummer, Nigel, to begin with just played time. Because in the band before, Peter, the fiddler, would say, if he went off the track and began to play any sort of fills, would say, "Cut it out." So he just didnt get that much out of it. And John Kirkpatrick and myself said, "For heavens sake play what you want to play. Well find out if it fits." And as far as Im concerned, I really enjoyed playing with that kind of thing going on around. But, as I say, I dont actually have any feelings about it. I think you have to trust people to do what they think is right.
John: I guess you have to start from that basic premise. That people are professionally competent.
Martin: Right -- and let them get on with it. If the blokes an absolute Burke and hasnt got any idea, it will soon show up and hell feel uncomfortable. But they should be allowed to do it the way they think best. I sympathize absolutely with both sides! If Im presented with a situation where one is teaching, all right. If Im in a situation where its all free, then thats the way I think. Things always have to change. Its one of the great paradoxes of traditional music, isnt it? The one thing you can absolutely guarantee is change.
John: The rate of change might be one question people have, though.
Martin: Oh. absolutely. You then take that rule with a pinch or salt, and if somebody does something outrageous, you say, Hey, leave that out! (Laughter)
John: I was talking with Beverley Cotten, of the Greengrass Cloggers, and she says that one of the things you must never forget is practice you can never stop at any point and say, "Now Im professionally competent, I dont have to practice."
Martin: Shes absolutely correct. Thats one of the reasons for rejoining Steeleye this last time, to learn something else.
John: Do you think Steeleye had changed between the time you left them and when you rejoined them again?
Martin: Oh, enormously. Musically, and attitude. And the most obvious change was this enormous machine that had grown up around it to make it function. It was terrifying. I mean, you picked up your guitar to rehearse, and all of a sudden felt this enormous machine going, "Brrrrm! Brrrrm!" I mean, it was incredible.
John: Thats what you said earlier today, before we got over here, about your putting in an 18 hour day and two of them were music.
Martin: Exactly. Its not my scene. I did enjoy the music tremendously, though. But the other sixteen hours. It was worth doing, because eventually we were a good band. On the last tour, we finished the way we wanted to finish, which was going out on a high you know, quit while youre ahead.
John: I think this might be a problem for a lot of us in this area living a simple life seems to require living a complicated life in order to live a simple life. You know, wheels turning wheels.
John: I thought thats what you meant in talking about this huge machine which eventually came to be all around your hats .
Martin: Yes. Its not, in the long run, my way, that particular way of living a complicated life in order to live a simple life. Its much too complicated, I think. There are just too many people around, in keeping you together. They come up with all these little temptations, and say, "Why dont you do this ?"
John: Theres a great line of Robin Williamsons in one of his songs, "Lets hire a team of lawyers, and hitch them to our lives ."
Martin: That is it! That is it, exactly. The first thing we did was, when John and I joined, we went to see the lawyer sorry, lawyers! We went to see the accountants. My God. That is still going on. The contract has just been finalized. We were engaged as we didnt join any of the thousands of companies Oh God, dont laugh!
John: Im not laughing! (Laughter)
Martin: We didnt join them we were just employees, which we chose to do. Our lives werent as complicated as the lives of the rest of the band. They were partners in the companies. But the first things that happened were the accountants meetings and the lawyers meetings. And that went on all the time as I say, the contracts just been finalized for a band that now no longer exists!
John: You know, I wonder about this. There must be a lot of people at festivals like this, who have in mind getting into a career in folk music, possibly. They may play in church basement coffeehouses and so forth. For example, up on the hill this afternoon there is an open stage area, and there are people there who make a living elsewhere. And I wonder, if some of them have ambitions to become musicians, if theyre aware of some of these "machine problems.
Martin: Yes, you do wonder. But you see, talking about it like this, it can always have an air of resentment about it, when there really isnt. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed all of it, and none of the machinery ever sought to do me personal harm. And I realized that if you want to do something like that, thats the kind of machinery youve got to get into. If you want to do it right. You have to get the manager. And there are very few managers people who want to be managers who dont come the heavy at some point. And our manager was a heavy from way back. He had a lot of experience, and hes utterly ruthless. And as I say, its not the way I want to do things in the long run.
John: From what Ive seen of it personally, there seems to be a lot of jerking around that doesnt seem to be necessary. And yet at the same time its part of a big conglomerate,
and it acts in certain ways in order to survive. The margin of survival isnt all that wide, although the sums involved may be enormous.
Martin: Thats absolutely right.
John: And when you step out of that you have to ask yourself if thats the inevitable future. Whoo. Well, maybe this conversation is getting a little bit away from what I wanted to talk about, something from that interview you did with Sing Out! Magazine in 1974, with Josh Dunson and John Cohen, you mentioned something about the mythological orientation or interpretation of folk music by English singers?
Martin: Right off the top of my head, I cant remember how we got into that now. Would you like to tell me about it, and see if I can recall that?
John: OK. I was thinking in terms of "John Barleycorn," and the death-and- Resurrection, transfiguration motif, and its links to the Morris Dance. And I was thinking there may be closer links between ritual dance and singing in Britain than there are in the United States.
Martin: Yes, in the folk scene there is a definite crossover point. There is a definite area of common ground. Quite a few of the singers, for instance, have a feeling for for the magic thats involved. Lets see. Magic with a small "m," or a capital "M"?
John: Are you talking about the interpersonal feeling that comes about in the dance?
Martin: No, Im talking more about the ritual side of it.
John: OK. You mean white witchcraft?
Martin: I dont like to use that word. Let me tell you a story. A group called Old Spot Morris Old Spot is a breed of pig Gloucestershire Old Spot did a tour, and they went up north to dance with this Yorkshire clog-morris team, Garsten. Now they had this lovely big coach with air-conditioning, big 8-track stereo a bit different from what they had here
John: A bit different! (Laughter)
Martin: Right! So what have we got here! Terrible coach! So they were going across the Cotswolds, going home, and all of a sudden, in the middle of nowhere, not a house to be seen for miles around, the coach broke down. And the driver gets out and says, "Ill walk to a garage," and he starts walking. So they sit there for two hours, in the baking hot sun, and they tried to think about getting out of there, and they all sat there, and then somebody started making animal noises, and getting silly and they couldnt do it, so they got out and they tried to have a dance, and nothing worked out, but finally they said, "All right, lets do something," and somebody named a tune, and they decided to make up a dance, and so they did something, and they got back in, still talking about this other teams coach, and how jealous they were, and no sooner had the last man sat down than up drove this gleaming big coach 8-track stereo, air-conditioning, the driver in uniform and he stopped and got out and came back and said, "Trouble, lads?" And so they told him, and he says, "Well, jump in and Ill run you home. " And they asked him how come he came that way, and he says, "Oh, I dunno, I was on my way home, and I saw the road, and thought, Ill go that way instead."
John: Coincidence? Synchronicity?
Martin: Well, was it? Thats what Im talking about. Im talking about being aware. Having a sympathetic attitude. So they all got in the coach, and Ken Langsbury, the Fool. Sat there white as a sheet, and everybody kept looking out of the window nervously.
John: The White Horse of the Speys come along for them?
Martin: Well, thats what were talking about, isnt it? But they all got home and they went out and got drunk and that was the end of that story.
Martin: Its said of Old Spot Morris that it never rains when they dance.
John: In England?
Martin: Ive seen it. It was either last Whit or it might have been Whit of 76. It rained all day at Bampton, their first day out theyre one of the traditional sides, you know. And they come out, and they dance all day, and then in the evening they have one or two guests. It rained all day I mean, all day. And there were two or three sides out, and one of the sides spent all day in the pub, and the other side actually danced in the rain all day because, Whit Monday, thats what you do, you dance. And they got soaked. And every time somebody came out of the pub theyd go, "Oh, youre nice and dry, arent you?" And theyd slink back into the pub. Then Old Spot got up, and they said, "Right, were going to have Old Spot," and they formed their lines and went, "Brr-mp!" and the rain stopped. And they danced, finished up their dance, packed up, and it began to rain again. I saw that. And when there was that long spell when the reservoirs went down and down, Old Spot actually stopped dancing. The farmers needed the rain, so they stopped dancing.
John: Brian Wilson was working on an album about fire, and there was a rash of brush fires around Los Angeles, and he quit working on the album. He scared himself, so he quit working, just in case.
Martin: well, I dont think you should mess about with things like that. Its not something I like to talk about, its so bloody pretentious when you get into that. Its something thats there, though, that I know is there, so as far as Im concerned thats it.
John: Thats an interesting way of putting it. In this country, a lot of people I know have gotten into traditional music coming out of a whole spacey Sixties thing
John: And when they get involved with traditional music, with the magic and the occult and so forth, it is very pretentious, thats exactly the word for it. I just cannae be bothered, myself. But there is something, some legitimate interest or knowledge. The tradition youre carrying on with the Morris had a serious purpose, that was fulfilled by carrying on of the tradition at one time.
Martin: It still lives. There are people like Bampton who go out every year, and they dance come rain or come shine. Because thats what you do. You complain like mad about it one of the Bampton lads was standing there in his Morris gear one year, and he says, "I feel like a bloody fool in this Id rather be down in the country-and-western club." I said, " You like country-and-western?" So he says, "Yeah! I got a great pair of six-guns the other day!" (Laughter) Right! He goes down there in his cowboy hat with his six-guns, and hes standing there in his Morris gear, saying, and "I feel like a bloody fool!"
John: Och, come oan, Jimmy! That is funny!
Martin: Yes, it is, isnt it? But still theres something there, you see. Its there, and it should be accepted.
John: You know, I do wonder. When you do "John Barleycorn," are English audiences or English folksingers a bit more aware of the whole death-and-resurrection idea, or that magical theme?
Martin: I dont know. Some are, quite definitely. But then some arent. I suppose that is a bit like over here, isnt it? I had an argument at Bampton this year with three lads in a pub, who sat there for fifteen minutes, screaming at me, "Sing John Barleycorn! Sing John Barleycorn!"
John: Did you do it off-the-beat again, to throw off the clap-along people?
Martin: (Laughs) No, but I just said, "No, Im not going to sing it." And they got so mad at me you know, "Boy, youre pretty cynical !" But I mean, I said to them, "If thats what you think its all about, why dont you sing it then?" And this chap said, "But I dont know the words." So you see what he meant by "that was what it was all about."
John: Ah. If he really felt it was all about "John Barleycorn," then why didnt he learn the words to it?
Martin: Exactly. I thought it was all about that at one point enough to go and learn the words to it. And thats all there was to that, dyou see?
Martin: But its like weekend hippies.
John: Day trippers.
Martin: Thats right. And it is just not on. I remember meeting Walter Walter Parden at the Smithsonian, just year before last. Just realizing how . That was the magic of it.
John: How do you mean that, Martin?
Martin: Well, seeing that man sitting thereevery time he began to sing, you could see the goose-bumps all coming up on his forearms. Every time he starts a song. When he first came on the folk scene, that was about four years ago, hed not sung his songs I mean, not in public alone, hed not sung his songs, period, for thirty years. And when he first came out, he said, "I thought nobody cared. I thought I was the only one." He thought he was the only person in the world cared about these songs, and then he heard there was somebody who was interested, and then eventually he was taken to this place near Norwich, and so on, and he says, "There were about fifty people there, all young people, and when I was finished singing my songs they all clapped. And then I was at the Norwich Festival, and there were these thousands of people, and I stood up and I sang my songs. And then I cried." Now, what can you do? Hes a living example of the miracle. Traditional song I sometimes wonder how it survives. But it does.
John: Do you know Cass Wallen?
Martin: Yes. I saw him when we saw him it was also at the Smithsonian, in 76. Guy Carawan brought him down.
John: Same effect. To see Cass standing in the middle of that bloody big fancy stage, with that absolute confidence in the hymns he sings and the old ballads too the old anticlerical Baptist songs that satirize the circuit-riding preacher and you know that you will listen to him, because it is a good song, and he will do a fine job of it and so on.
Amazing old guy.
Martin: Mm. Walter too.
John: You know, Guy Carawan also interests me. We saw him at the Middletown, New Jersey, festival in 77, and he was just so good. He brought up on stage a young fiddler hed been jamming with, out under the trees in Bodman Park Richard Klein, the young chap was, a really good young fiddler, whod just been jamming with Guy in the crowd and thats so Guy Carawan-ish, isnt it?
Martin: Hes a good bloke.
John: A real "sharing" thing to do.
Martin: Right. Yes.
John: That brings up another aspect of the folk life I want to talk to you about earlier. It seems to me that in "the folk life" or "the folk scene," whatever that theres a tremendous amount of sharing going on. It seems to me that in the folk life sharing matters, whereas in the pop field, its a matter of being a property, and so much harder to do that.
Martin: Well, thats it. Its protection of property. A matter of presentation. You get your act together and you go out and you do it. And everybodys knocked out. Or everybodys bored to tears. And, yes, you are a property. Steeleye Span was a property. And thats bad. Though I did enjoy the music.
John: Do you prefer to do this kind of festival?
Martin: I prefer to be free.
John: Do you think its easier to be free in the folk music festival and concert circuit than it is in the pop field?
Martin: I should have thought that would have gone without saying. Its certainly a more organic scene.
John: Well, you get a situation where you get The Boys of the Lough coming over, and its specifically on a concert tour, and they go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang and its nonstop cross-country and theyre gone. OK, thats legitimate in a sense, theyre still doing the same "traditional folk" music and theyve been doing it for years, and they do deserve to make a few bucks, at long last, for petes sake. So I feel divided myself.
Martin: I know exactly what you mean.
John: I just hope there is something in the middle, you know?
Martin: Yes, I always felt very uncomfortable with that kind of thing "Were going off to America now, and after that well be off to Europe, and now were going off to " You know, its very much a scaled down mirror-image of the whole pop music scene, isnt it? The whole rock-and-roll scene.
John: I think of Peter Taney of the Juggernaut String Band, saying, "If we could only get on a tour of the junior high schools out there " Theres an awful lot of students, and youd maybe have an effect upon curriculum certainly youd reach a whole lot of kids . There is clearly an ambition there, but it seems more human sized to me. Its not ambitious of being a star, anyway. Is it perfectly realizable?
Martin: Hm. In the sense that you could become a star by making a name for yourself for not wanting to be a star? Is that it?
John: Is that it? Is that what I mean? Im not sure.
Martin: And of course its much more of a tightrope, isnt it. because somebody is going to say to you, "Youre full of shit!"
John: Och, they say that to me all the time, Jimmy! (Laughter) Well, OK. I could see where somebody might say to someone like that, "You really are full of shit, because you really do want to be a big star, but you cant handle it. You cant take the pressures."
Martin: And youre chicken."
John: Oh yeah. "And youre chicken."
Martin: Well, I know I am. I do know that I dont want it, and I dont think thats at all a bad thing to know that, really.
John: My own feeling, from all Ive witnessed of it on a personal level, is that there are people in the big time, any big time, who would cut your throat for the profit margin, and nothing personal about it.
Martin: And you can really get yourself into the state of mind where you say, "Oh, thats all right. So and so is all right. Hes really quite a very funny person. Some of it is all right, you know." And thats one step along the road to accepting that.
John: You mean, accepting a behavior that you dont really, on some level, accept at all?
Martin: Yes. Because thats a part of a person who can turn a nice face to you. I can remember some of the arguments we had on our last tour, going in and arguing and arguing and winning it really was a victory that the people
who would be putting us up would not have to pay for the privilege. And not being sure, if it had not been the last tour, that we would have won the argument.
John: Amazing. Ive been in touch with Robin Williamson a bit, over the last two years. And hes now got a new band, His Merry Band, following the break-up of The Incredible String Band, and theyre fine, fine musicians. Its the same voice, of course, because its still Robin Williamson. But theyre out and around the smaller folk clubs now, and I cant think thats all a matter of necessity. I do think theres an element of choice in that.
Martin: Yes. Hes what I personally would call a folkie. He is, isnt he? Well, it really is so much easier to do that in Britain, where the whole folk scene is looked upon with such
contempt that they leave you alone. Which is good.
John: Well, it is largely the same over here, of course, though there are some clubs or coffeehouses that act as farm-clubs for the major leagues, in a sense. The Main Point does that, as I see it people like Steve Forbert, opening for guys like Tom Rush and it really provides showcase places for record companies to see young talent in the act at an early stage. So theres a chosen spiral up and out of the coffeehouses and into the bigger halls each time a musician comes round the circuit, until they get priced out of the small clubs. Joni Mitchell is a classic case. So now she writes laments for the fact she has swimming pools .
Martin: And that sense of envy for the man who "was singing real good for free."
John: Yes. "City of the fallen angels," and she should know, if anybody does.
Martin: I like her music a lot, actually.
John: Im in love with her!
Martin: Oh yes. But I know what you mean, exactly. And playing at Art for Arts Sake isnt on, either.
John: Wilde says, "Who is Art, that he should have a sake?" (Laughter)
Martin: There was a little bit of that in England, not a lot, but some. There used to be more. There used to be more Joni Mitchell style music. Ralph McTell, for example.
John: I have on of his old albums on tape somewhere his "Song to a Seagull" is on that. Its lovely.
Martin: Hes great. Hes crazy, but I love him.
John: You know, I like the sense I get from talking with you, that you always have a choice in hat you do with yourself.
Martin: I think thats true, on the whole. Some people, you say to them, "Why did you do that?" And theyll say, "Because Ive got to. And of course you dont. All you have to say is, "No. thats no." Or if youre really nervous, "No, thank you." And people go away.
John: Ive been looking forward to this interview for a long time. This is a real treat for me, personally. You and your name and your actions theyve kept crossing the path of "The Folk Life" since long, long before the publication began. Your name and your music, especially, but also your ethical sense, and that may be the most important of all. Do you see yourself as a model of ethical conduct in the folk life?
Martin: Gee, I dunno .
John: One of the greater questions of all time, innit, Jimmy? (Laughter). Maybe I should have asked a simpler question. Like, whats your favorite color, or something.
Martin: Its blue, actually.
John: Not red? Oh well. OK, let me ask you a really dumb, fan magazine question that Ive been meaning to ask you. What is your own personal favorite of all the songs that you have ever recorded?
Martin: Three, actually. I can think of three. One of these is "Prince Heathen."
Martin: Another is "Famous Flower of Serving Men." And the third is "Willies Lady."
John: I dont think I know that one. Is that a "Sweet William" ballad? Which album is it on?
Martin: The last one I did, actually.
John: That would explain it; I havent heard it yet. Is Rounder Records actually going to bring out all the Martin Carthy albums from Topic and Gamma and all the others?
Martin: I havent been in on the organizing end of it, so I dont know how its being put together, but yes, they are doing it. I dont really know much about it.
John: How many albums do you have with Dave Swarbrick?
Martin: Five, I think. We toured for three and a half years together, and then we split up, and he joined Fairport, where he still is.
John: And you have albums with the Watersons too.
Martin: Oh yes, apart from the Steeleye things. The Watersons themselves have done three others? (Aside to "Iron Mike" Waterson, who is sitting on the next bunk over.) Yes, three others. And I joined about five years ago, and now we have two since.
John: Tell me about the Watersons, then, since theyre all here and can defend themselves.
Martin: Okay (Smiling broadly). The Watersons have been singing together since they were that big (gesturing to knee height). Mike Waterson: And we havent grown much since.
John: Well, thats a helluvah thing to be saying about your friends and family then, isnt it?
Mike: Its that walking, you see?
John: Keeps your legs short, is it? Wears your legs down?
Martin: Tried walking on his hands. But they got too short too.
John: Ah. Kept bumping his head on the ground, then? (Laughter) So when did you first meet up with the Watersons, Martin?
Martin: Years ago. We first met when Norma organized a concert up in Hull. She had Steve Benbow and me as guests, and thats when we first met. The Watersons were already singing as a group, and they were running a club in Hull called the Bluebell its still running, though theyre not involved in it any more they ran it up until 68, when they broke up as a singing group, and John, who was the bass singer, moved to London, where he still is. And Norma went away to the West Indies, where she was a DJ on Radio Antilles. Mike and Lal were in Hull, and when she came back in 72 we got married.
John: Jamie and me too 72. Fun, apparently. All these old married folks you meet in the folk life must be something about folk music. Hm. Heres a leading question. How do you think your singing has been influenced by singing with the Watersons?
Martin: Its become plainer. I was getting much too inward looking, and I didnt know how I was going to get the hell out of that. When we first got married I wasnt singing with the family, and then after a year or so I began singing with them, and I found I was getting much, much plainer.
John: Do you think its just because of singing with a group rather than solo, or this particular group of people?
Martin: Its because this particular group of people is so much plainer and simpler.
John: What traditional background are they from?
Martin: well, the Watersons are from Yorkshire, and a lot of the songs were from Yorkshire.
John: Are they in turn affected by Yorkshire tradition?
Martin: Theyre very much affected by he way the Watersons sing! Whether its songs from the shows, or Beatles songs, or traditional songs they all come out that way. One of the reasons is the technical point that Lal and Norma sing in a particular key, and Mike had to find a way of fitting in. Thats what I have to do now too.
John: You know, in this country, theres a real difference between different traditions bluegrass is not barbershop, Baptist Church singing had a big influence on the development of old-time music is Church singing one of the influences on the Watersons singing style?
Martin: Theres not so much of a Church singing tradition in England I mean, you find it, but not so much as over here. You dont have anything like the Sacred Harp Conventions, for instance. You do find it occasionally in parts of Wales, out in the Outer Hebrides really strange ways with hymns, and with psalms too. You dont find it so much in industrialized England, because its been so much more standardized. The folk hymns dont have the same grip on singing styles over there that they do over here. Though certainly people are influenced by it I suppose I am personally. There are certain lines one goes for, because songs are made that way. The things like the Copper family do theyre definitely not modal, but then what harmony singing there is in England tends to be less modal anyway and more sort of Church-y.
John: Broad Church rather than High?
Martin: Right. The more modal things would tend to be sung with one voice, with perhaps the occasional harmony. But in the case of the Watersons, its just the thing the family has, and thats it. Talk to Lou Killen about it, and hell tell you the Church singing over there that the Sacred Harp or Christian Harmony does over here.
John: Id go right back to the Red Clay Ramblers for my case, then. A great case, I think, too. They are very highly developed instrumentally, which you might expect of American string bands from the Appalachians. But also in vocal styles theyre just richly developed in that tradition of Sacred Harp or Christian Harmony. They can go from hoedowns or Irish music right into unaccompanied hymns, as they do on "Merchants Lunch. Just an incredible range of sounds. And it all sounds so archaic, as if theres a real time difference in development of the two traditions, of instrumental playing and unaccompanied singing. Do you find that, when you sing with the Watersons, youve stepped back into a tradition thats older than guitar playing?
Martin: Oh yes. But youre also dealing with something that is not only older, but also continuous, so you have your feet well into that continuity too.
John: How would you contrast your singing with the Watersons to your singing a song with a guitar by yourself?
Martin: It is an important difference. Im going for something thats pared down, in both cases. So perhaps theyre not that different, but the way of getting it, that pared down quality, is quite different in both cases. When were all singing in harmony, its pared down by that. But when Im singing with a guitar its also pared down. Im trying to get away from actual harmonic structures and progressions, to treat the thing as a line. The chords arise because of the sympathetic whatever-it-izzes are set up around the line, you see.
John: So its the melody line of the story thats most important.
Martin: Harmony is always involved, so its there, but because its a line rather than a series of progressions, its also different.
John: I recall, in that 1974 interview with Josh Dunson and John Cohen, in Sing Out! Magazine, in which you got into a really nice discussion of the Travis-style or rather, derived from Travis-style picking you do
Martin: Its derived from that, yes.
John: Would you regard yourself primarily as a singer or primarily as a guitarist?
Martin: I dont know. It really depends, on .
John: On what youve had for breakfast?
Martin: Right! (Laughter) If Im playing something and its really working well, Ill be saying, "Way-hey!" You know? Im really a picker!" But then if Im singing . I dont really know. I do know I love doing them both, and perhaps thats enough.
John: I guess I think of you as primarily a singer of tales, but that may be my own bias, in terms of the oral transmission theory of Albert Lord.
Martin: Well, I also do think of the guitar as something functional, to do something with for songs or pieces of music. And with some pieces, the guitar helps to create a tension or line, so that you can just reach out and grasp all along the edges of the whole structure, you see? (Gestures with fingers curling out in mid-air around the edges of the almost-visible structure.) It gives you a grip on the edges of the story, you see what I mean?
John: And then once youve established that tension of essential effect, you can just ride on into the story-line over the top of that rhythm or line?
Martin: Right. Right on into the story, right. So its all functional. I think of instrumentals as dance music, as tunes for dancing. I dont play them as separate pieces of music. The melody is being created by the series of movements that form the steps of the dance. The steps are not created for the music that someone wrote. The music is subject to the whims of the dance, not the other way around.
John: "This is English country dance music, got it? So cut out fooling around with the tempo"?
Martin: OK. Thats a way of saying the same thing.
John: Would you argue that the dance is necessarily older than the instrumental accompaniment, or that instruments come after singing, so theres a chain of first singing, then dancing, then instruments?
Martin: I dont really know. Id be tempted to go for singing as older than dancing. But then if you did that someone would say, "What about dancing around the house or the cave?" I dont think Im qualified to make a guess. I dont know how you could back it up.
John: Its an interesting question, I think, even if we cant resolve it. But does this kind of sense of the relative weight of the prehistory of singing and dance enter into your performance as a consideration ?
Martin: No. Im just concentrating on singing the song, on getting it right.
John: Technical virtuosity?
Martin: No, getting the story right. And doing whatever little extras you do in order to get it right so that it worksgetting the correct tension between the music and the story, so that it gets done right. I am aware that some of these songs are very, very old pre-Industrial Revolution and so forth. And they speak just as loudly now as they ever did. You know, getting out of Steeleye, and looking back over some of the nineteenth century songs we did, especially, I look back and say, "I never sang that!" The older songs are not so sexist, but some of the songs that arose during the Industrial Revolution, especially, really are terrifically so. The older ones have much more of humanity in them.
John: George Gritzbach said at one point in Greg Giamos interview with him, which we printed some months ago in The Folk Life, theres something legitimate in doing the old blues songs, just as they were done originally, as a matter of pure history. Thats how they were, folks. But then theres some question of contemporary offensiveness, and the way hed handle it is just not to sing them at all, rather than try to fix them up for whatever reason, if theyre that offensive.
Martin: I tend not to want to sing anything which is overtly sexist. Because there is a body of English folksong which is sexist and chauvinistic, and it ought to be looked at, and said, "No, no, no, no, it wont do."
John: Where do you think the sexism comes from?
Martin: The original situation of the people who composed these songs. But then a lot of that carries over the little woman at home, that kind of thing.
John: If youre a man. We have friends, both PhDs in the same field, both originally very active in their careers, but when the second baby came along, it just seemed so much simpler and easier for them to slip into it he was out teaching all day, and she was taking care of the baby at home, and they slipped right into your basic hubby-and-wifey routine.
Martin: Its the easiest thing in the world to slip into, and its all very well for people to slip into, and its all very well for people sitting in comfortable middle-class homes in Islington and Hampstead, talking about not being sexist, and about the social revolution and all that kind of thing but just go down to any working-class area, and see how people really are forced to live there, and then come and talk about the social revolution.
John: Its a very challenging idea, the womens movement. You can see why some people are just hoping it will go away.
Martin: Sadly, theres a lot of truth in it. Youve got your chance to get your two cars and your color telly, and no worries about it all.
John: If youre a man, of course.
Martin: If youre a man. But many women are still quite content to go along with it. I met this elderly lady coming down in the train from home to London, and we got to talking. She was going to see a daughter, and we were talking, and she asked me what the schools were like at home for our children. And I said, "Oh, theyre all right, not great." And she asked me what we had, and I said, "Little girls." And she said, "Oh, then thats all right, isnt it?"
John: She actually said that?
Martin: Oh yes. She did. Good, isnt it?
John: Its incredible. Just ingrained, and incredible.
[And so we shook our heads and changed the subject to something more cheery, and let the tape run on, and sat back with a couple of Martins Woodbines, and shook our heads some more. Quite a conversationalist, isnt he? You should hear him on the subject of David Crosby and "Steal the kids for the cultural revolution," and freedom of the press in Britain and the USA, and so on and so on. ]