Singer, songwriter, composer
On October 25, 2000, a long-running feud between two of contemporary music’s legends finally came to an end when Paul Simon invited British folk singer Martin Carthy onstage in London, England, to join him in performing “Scarborough Fair.” In the mid 1960s, when Simon took a sabbatical to London to reconsider his future in music, he had learned the traditional folk ballad from Carthy, who was the leader of England’s folk revival. Using Carthy’s arrangement of the song in a subsequent recording, Simon enjoyed a hit song with “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” in 1968 as part of the duo Simon and Garfunkel. In Carthy’s opinion, however, Simon failed to give him proper credit for arranging the song, a grievance that remained a point of contention between the musicians for decades. Thus, the audience at Simon’s London concert was surprised to hear him introduce Carthy for a performance of the song. As Carthy told Paul Castle in an interview on the About Folk Music website, however, “[I]t was time to let go…. In fact, in an interview ten years ago or so, Paul thanked publicly all the musicians and others he had known in England in the sixties, and this gave a shove to that train of thought in me.” The “Scarborough Fair” controversy behind him, Carthy could now properly enjoy the accolades as Britain’s leading folk musician without the distractions of long-ago feuds.
Martin Dominic Forbes Carthy was born on May 20, 1941, in Hatfield, England, a town just north of London. Coming of age in Britain’s postwar era of the late 1950s—when a new wave of plays, movies, and music reshaped the country’s cultural landscape—Carthy was profoundly influenced by singer Lonnie Donegan, who popularized skiffle music with a string of hits including “Rock Island Line,” “Cumberland Gap,” and “Tom Dooley.” In its most basic form, skiffle was an improvised fusion of folk and jazz elements that sometimes used objects such as washboards and jugs as instruments. In this do-it-yourself spirit, the skiffle craze in Britain gave rise to hundreds of amateur bands attempting to emulate Donegan’s international success. Although he first worked as an assistant stage manager for several theater companies, Carthy’s love of skiffle found him playing the coffeehouse circuit around London. Joining the Thameside Four as a singer and guitarist, Carthy appeared on the group’s 1963 release, The Thamesiders and Davy Graham. However, Carthy soon became a featured solo performer at the center of the folk revival movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s at London’s Troubadour Folk Club.
Abandoning his studies with the trombone, Carthy’s talent with the guitar and mandolin served as fitting accompaniments to his direct and unpretentious style of singing. Carthy’s most outstanding contribution to the folk music revival, however, was his ability to unearth folk songs and melodies that were in danger of disappearing from Britain’s musical heritage. Going back to early twentieth-century recordings and even older transcriptions of folk songs, Carthy resurrected the tunes, sometimes coming up with new arrangements or adapting the basic material into almost-new songs. A sort of musical anthropologist, Carthy was perhaps the best-known folk music figure in England by the time he recorded his first album in 1965, the self-titled Martin Carthy. The release cemented his reputation as a singer and musician. As Q magazine summarized the album’s importance upon its reissue in 1993, “Martin Carthy’s debut album set new standards for the British folk revival…. [W]ith this album he was on his way to becoming one of the folk scene’s foremost attractions.”
As a mentor to many folk musicians in London, Carthy also befriended Bob Dylan during his stay in the city in 1965. While appearing in a television play there, Dylan heard Carthy’s rendition of “Lord Franklin.” Inspired by its melody, Dylan reworked it into his own song, “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” which subsequently appeared on his album Freewheelin’ along with a note of recognition to Carthy for his contribution to the song. More controversial was Simon’s adaptation of Carthy’s arrangement of the traditional song “Scarborough Fair,” which Carthy had included on his own 1965 album. After Simon heard Carthy perform the song in concert, he discussed it in depth with the folk singer, who gave Simon a copy of its arrangement, including its chords and words. After the song was included as the opening
For the Record…
Born Martin Dominic Forbes Carthy on May 20, 1941, in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England.
Played professionally at Troubadour Folk Club in London, England, early 1960s; has played with groups Steeleye Span, Albion Country Band, and Waterson: Carthy; released solo albums, 1960s-; released compilation The Carthy Chronicles: Rare, Live and Classic Carthy, 2001.
Awards: Member of the British Empire (MBE), 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Free Reed Records, The Cedars, Belper, Derbyshire, DE56 IDD, United Kingdom, website: http://www.free-reed.co.uk; Topic Records, c/o Glass Ceiling PR, 50 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, London N4 3ES, United Kingdom, website: http://www.topicrecords.co.uk. Management —Moneypenny Agency and Management, The Stables, Westwood House, Main Street, North Dalton, Driffield, East Yorkshire, YO25 9XA, United Kingdom.
track on the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme without giving credit to Carthy, a minor feud was started between the two men. For several years, Simon stubbornly refused to acknowledge Carthy’s contribution, and Carthy continued to question Simon’s integrity. The spat was settled publicly during the October of 2000 concert when Simon called Carthy to invite him to perform onstage.
Fortunately, most of Carthy’s musical collaborations were much more amicable and productive. During the rest of the 1960s, he released an album each year, featuring original material as well as new arrangements of traditional songs. Carthy also collaborated extensively with fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who worked with Carthy as a musician, arranger, and performer. The duo also released six albums between 1966 and 1969 when Swarbrick joined the folk-rock group Fair-port Convention. Carthy himself would join another folk-rock band, Steeleye Span, in 1970. He remained with the group only a short time. In 1972, after marrying folk singer Norma Waterson, Carthy devoted most of his collaborative energies to performing with his wife and her family, although he performed with the Albion Country Band for a brief period as well.
One of the highlights of Carthy’s solo work was the 1976 release Crown of Horn. After its reissue in 1995, Q paid tribute by saying, “At times he’s given the impression of keeping traditional English folk music alive almost on his own.” The 1999 album Signs of Life, featuring a rendition of the Bee Gees hit “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” also won him praise as “the best of his class” from the magazine, which welcomed his first solo album in over ten years. Among his collaborations was the 2000 album Broken Ground, recorded under the Waterson: Carthy name with his wife. The album received standout praise for its presentation of traditional gypsy music. “This music is not, in their hands, anything other than living material,” wrote a New Internationalist reviewer.
After 40 years of performing, Carthy was known not only for his own work, but as the husband and father of important folk music musicians in their own right. Waterson received a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination in 1996 for her self-titled album, a feat that daughter Eliza Carthy duplicated in 1998 with her acclaimed solo album Red Rice. Although Eliza Carthy continued to appear as a singer and violinist with her parents as part of Waterson: Carthy, her own musical directions took her into techno, reggae, and dance music territory as well, a trend that continued with her 2000 release Angels & Cigarettes. The first folk musician signed to a major label in Britain in more than 20 years, Eliza Carthy nevertheless insisted on remaining true to her less commercial roots. As she told the Los Angeles Times, “Waterson: Carthy is sacrosanct. I’ll be doing this as long as my parents want.”
Carthy was not short of honors of his own, however. In 1998, he was named a Member of the British Empire (MBE), an honor that caused him to reflect once again on his place in the folk music community. Hesitant to accept the award at first for its connotations to British imperialism, Carthy decided that it was offered to highlight the continued importance of folk music in modern Britain. “A bit of profile isn’t gonna hurt us,” he told the Dirty Linen newsletter in explaining his decision, adding with characteristic modesty, “And I say ‘us, ‘the plural, for the folk scene—isn’t gonna hurt us at all.” Carthy’s own profile was helped with the 2001 release of the Carthy Chronicles compilation, a capstone to a recording career that spanned five decades, as well as a sixtieth-birthday concert that celebrated his life and work with a host of musical colleagues where he was acknowledged as a musician, scholar, and mentor.
Martin Carthy, Topic, 1965.
Second Album, Topic, 1966.
Byker Hill, Topic, 1967.
But Two Came By, Topic, 1968.
Prince Heathen, Topic, 1969.
Because It’s There, Topic, 1971.
Crown of Horn, Topic, 1971.
Out of the Cut, Topic, 1971.
Sweet Wivelsfield, Topic, 1971.
Selections, Pegasus, 1971.
Shearwater, Mooncrest, 1972.
Landfall, Topic, 1977.
Right of Passage, Topic, 1988.
Life and Limb (live), Green Linnet, 1991.
Skin & Bone, Green Linnet, 1992.
Kershaw Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1995.
Signs of Life, Topic, 1999.
Collection, Topic, 1999.
The Carthy Chronicles: Rare, Live and Classic Carthy Free Reed, 2001.
Broughton, Simon, et al., editors, World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 1, The Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, editors, The Faber Book of Pop, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Billboard, October 3, 1998, p. 1; November 11, 2000, p. 73.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2001.
New Internationalist, January/February 2000, p. 47.
New Statesman, November 27, 1998, p. 42.
Q, May 1993; March 1996; June 1996; January 1999; September 1999; June 2001.
Toronto Star, March 22, 2001.
About Folk Music, http://folkmusic.about.com/musicperform/folkmusic (June 22, 2001).
Dirty Linen, http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/84/marty.html (June 22, 2001).
Topic Records, http://www.topicrecords.co.uk/martin_carthy_topic_records.html (June 20, 2001).
Waterson: Carthy Official Website, http://www.folkicons.co.uk/wcart.html (June 20, 2001).
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