MARTIN CARTHY – Martin Carthy (Topic Records TTSLP005)

Martin CarthyLike most folk-ish guitarists of my generation (and succeeding generations, directly or indirectly), I owe a great deal to Martin Carthy, not only a fine singer but one of a generation of gifted musicians who lifted the perception of folk guitar from the strumming of (some) amateur skiffle bands to an instrument capable of virtuosity and sensitivity in the accompaniment or playing of traditional material. In fact, I’d consider his first LP, the 1965 album Martin Carthy, to be as important in the history of the instrument and the wide-ranging folk genre as the early albums of Davy Graham, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. (It did help that he was much the best singer of the four!)

That said, much of Martin’s guitar on this album is deceptively simple compared to the other three, who wore their technique far more conspicuously on their sleeves. It was, after all, recorded before his more esoteric experiments with more complex tunings and restringing, when it became obvious just what an adept technician he is. Where he scores over the others, brilliant musicians though they were, is in the harmonization of guitar and voice in the service of the song, rather than glorying in guitar technique.

It’s a real pleasure to see that Topic are re-releasing Martin Carthy on vinyl on the 23rd of February 2024: not because I share the current passion for collecting vinyl, but because it reinforces the reputation of a consummate musician and practical authority on folk music.

While the album is listed as a solo album, the commanding presence of Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle or mandolin on several tracks is an early example of their long-lasting – if intermittent – musical partnership, from which nearly every fiddle/guitar duo that came after must have learned something.

  1. ‘High Germany’ – this broadside originated version is perhaps the most straightforward arrangement on the record. These days I’d probably prefer it sung more slowly and less rhythmically, but it made an enormous impression on me when I first heard it.
  2. ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’: there are innumerable versions of this ballad: this is one of the best, though. Though, as a Shropshire lad myself, I have a soft spot for the Fred Jordan version.
  3. ‘Sovay’: the unusual time signature and the interplay of guitar and fiddle in this version of ‘The Female Highwayman’ are very much in the spirit of the duo’s later recordings, foreshadowing the complexities of later offerings like ‘Byker Hill’.
  4. ‘Ye Mariners All’ is sung here in a version collected by Hammond in Dorset. The Hammonds originally thought Marina Russell was singing ‘Ye Mourners All’, and it’s sometimes titled as ‘Ye Mar’ners All’, presumably to honour the ambiguity. And the tune, though attractive in itself and sung beautifully here, could be described as a little funereal, especially sung acapella as here. It works for me, though.
  5. ‘The Queen of Hearts’ (Roud 3195) is a sensitive guitar-and-vocal reading of this haunting tune, usually assumed to be from the 17th
  6. ‘Broomfield Hill’ (Child 43). Accompanied only by Swarb’s mandolin, this is a sprightly rendition of ‘The Broomfield Wager’ in which the heroine survives an ill-chosen bet with some help from the local witch. A great tune, too.
  7. ‘Springhill Mine Disaster’ (Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger): still my favourite version of this song about a 1958 mining accident, not least for the eerie near-dissonance of the opening and finishing chords.
  8. ‘Scarborough Fair’ (Child 2) – certainly the best-known version of the ballad Child called ‘The Elfin Knight’. Especially since Paul Simon appropriated it, crediting its authorship to himself and Art Garfunkel rather than to its traditional source (collected in the North East by Ewan MacColl), while Simon’s guitar arrangement clearly owes quite a lot to Martin’s arresting, harp-like arpeggios.
  9. ‘Lovely Joan’ is another light-hearted tale of girl power, accompanied on guitar and mandolin.
  10. ‘The Barley and the Rye’ is sung unaccompanied. I believe Peter Bellamy once remarked something to the effect that the song (from Harry Cox) would have been at least as effective if it finished with the joke in the last line of the second verse. Be that as it may, Martin sings (unaccompanied) all three verses (as did Peter, later), and it still works!
  11. ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’: Robert Dwyer Joyce’s (1830-1883) melodramatic tale of rebellion and revenge is given an emotive vocal performance. The “Oulart Hollow” named in the song refers to a rebel victory in County Wexford during the 1798 uprising.
  12. ‘The Two Magicians’ is essentially Bert Lloyd’s adaptation of a classic ballad (Child 44), accompanied only by Swarb’s fluent, swirling fiddle, allowing Martin full rein vocally. Classic.
  13. ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ is sung unaccompanied and very well, of course.
  14. ‘And A-Begging I Will Go’ has often been collected in Scotland, but mentions of Dukinfield and Shaw in this lyric suggest a connection with Greater Manchester, especially as it was learned from Salford-born Ewan MacColl. A good minor-key tune, given considerable lift by Swarb’s mandolin.

We’ve become accustomed to more complex styles of folk guitar since this album was recorded, not least in Martin’s own output, but this remains a masterful performance, an object lesson in sensitive interpretation where abundant technique is never allowed to overwhelm the sense of the song.

Perhaps it’s a pity that there isn’t a track here to illustrate what an effective partnership Martin and Dave were on dance tunes, but the incomparable instrumental EP No Songs is available on vinyl from Fledg’ling (sic) Records, and Swarb’s instrumental album Rags, Reels And Airs, with Martin and (on two tracks) Diz Disley on guitars, is available on CD from Topic. In any case, Dave’s fiddle and mandolin here is the icing on a cake already worthy of Escoffier.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ – official (modern) video:

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