Three days before he does the Royal Festival Hall, and the same day he’s interviewed in the Guardian, folk legend Martin Carthy plays in a pub less than ten minutes from my house. And it literally is a pub gig, with a grinning guy on the door and an impromptu ‘stage’ in the corner.
An appealing thing about gigs at The Greys is the sense of non-occasion. They put on acts they like, in the hope other people will too. You end up with the feeling that everybody is there for the music, right down to the guy collecting the glasses. It’s putting on a night the way it should be. Its putting on a night the way that was once fairly standard in Brighton, before it succumbed to the corporate clone crap you see infecting everywhere these days.
I did wonder, had some passer-by poked their head in the window, what they would have thought. Would they have guessed this was a folk world legend in the building, and not some regular Monday night? I mean this in a very positive sense - I’m not at all sure they would. Partly, Carthy is an unassuming performer. His attitude is that he might as well sing the songs as someone else, that the songs themselves are the stuff that matters.
But also it’s music which takes its time to work upon you. He’s not the greatest singer, not even greatly distinctive in the way of someone like Bob Dylan. And, heresy though it may be to say, his guitar playing at times can be almost awkward. But put the ingredients together and leave to marinade, and some invisible magic sparks between them.
As a nipper I lacked older brothers, so the only music I had to listen to was my Dad’s. I took to folk but took from it (and projected onto much subsequent music) the feeling that it was all about storytelling. Folk music was really just folk tales, the music there just to punctuate and illustrate the words. Folk instrumentals existed, but only as a means of testing the faithful. (This theory came in useful again as I grew older, and my brain became asked to explain Led Zeppelin drum solos.)
As I would finally discover, mostly this just missed the point. But I did find my old listening habits creeping back during some of the instrumentals. Perhaps Carthy really is a kind of storyteller, in the troubadour tradition.
Carthy’s importance is as a linking figure, a carrier of the folk spirit rather than the preserver of some imagined essence, an anti-Ewan McCall. He started out as part of the early Sixties acoustic folk revival, but inspired many from the subsequent electric folk scene, and even played awhile in Steeleye Span. I last saw him on these shores amid the multi-generational troupe of The Imagined Village. (A line-up which included his own daughter, Eliza.) And it's the linking figures who are important, because folk music shouldn't be about preserving the past but accentuating the continuum between the past and the present.
So it’s perhaps significant that only once did I notice him playing the now-common trick of ‘updating’ the lyrics - comparing a soldier crippled by a Napoleonic cannonball to one cluster bombed in Afghanistan. True, these aren’t songs which should be seen as fixed or in need of preserving. But it’s a smarter trick when it isn’t overplayed, or it just becomes a gimmick. It also risks the idea that the update somehow ‘politicises’ the old songs, as if dragging them out of retirement. A nice feature of this set was that it didn’t care to distinguish much between political songs and others. “There’s hardly such a thing as an apolitical song,” he told the Guardian. “They’re all political.”
Besides, if things are running right, we will make those connections ourselves. One example was when he launched into the folk original of Chumbawamba’s ode to a wifebeater’s comeuppance, ‘Stitch That’. As the track dated from their anti-pop-star era, I had no idea there even was a folk original! (Tho’ it’s notable that in this version the husband gets off with a warning, whereas in Chumbawamba’s he simply gets offed!) Carthy told us he’d long thought the tale a legend, but after one gig a stocky old Welshwoman had proudly told him it had happened in her village. The actions of one person who refuses to take the knocks become preserved by being turned into a song, a vehicle which passes easily from hand to hand and year to year. As the words go, “isn’t it true what small can do?”
Coming Soon!: Even older gig reports!