In his multi-faceted role as interpreter, writer, performer, and innovator of English folk music, Martin Carthy is considered by many to be a godfather of that tradition.
Since the 1960’s folk revival he has been key in paving the way with his unique guitar tuning, approachable stage presence, insatiable curiosity, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the art.
He was an incredible 75 years old in May this year – and he reckons 2016 is his 55th year on the road. It’s a way of life he has no intention of ceasing in the near future. He told me last spring “I’ve had a fabulous time; it’s a fabulous way to make a living. You never stop moving or run out of things to do, or [run] out of the desire to explore it because there’s always something that turns up to challenge you … It’s a very exciting life.”
As he continues to follow that star, over half a decade after those folk revival beginnings, Carthy played the Black Box for Belfast International Arts Festival. He shared the night with acoustic and slide guitar virtuoso, Martin Simpson, each taking a half of the show to perform solo, and eventually performing together on the last numbers of the night.
Simpson is a new-boy-in-town with his mere 45 years as a professional musician, mixing folk, blues, country, old-time and more; taking in influences from all around the globe – not least Ireland, Britain and America where he draws a sense of what is around him – the sounds and the stories – then winds them into songs.
In the Black Box he took time to tell us about the songs he was about to perform. The still room sat in the dim light, taking it in. There was no march of time going on. The relentless to-ing and fro-ing, and at-the-bar chatting that can easily mar acoustic gigs wasn’t present. It was just Simpson, and us, and his guitar.
Case in point, “Dark Swift and Bright Swallow.” He told us how he had been walking on Slapton Sands in Devon. On the walk he’d noticed his first swallow of the season, but his mind was also focused on the history of where he was standing. In 1944 it was a practice ground for the D-Day landings. The rehearsal went wrong and resulted in more men being killed on British land than those who died on Utah beach. The song was opened with effortless, winding guitar. A self-writ folk ballad, the words he sang were clearer than those he had spoken. His English accent added to the ordinary man sense of the song.
At times watching him play was like viewing the gig in split-screen. The dominant dexterous right hand dancing on the strings; the calming fretted left keeping everything grounded. He brought us ballads from centuries earlier, a poem of the late Cornish poet, Charles Causley, put to music.The influence of years he spent in the U.S. padded out “Delta Dreams”, bringing a different sound to the stage. The flickering melody brightening his memories from New Orleans.
He left the stage for an intermission before Mr. Carthy stepped up. And when Carthy did indeed take to the stage he caused a loud electric bump from his mic or speaker, waking us out of our dreamy dreams.
As Martin Carthy is a master of the stage, this meant that he too proved himself to be accomplished at explaining his songs; at setting the context and pointing out a history or a message. He explained how he once got a “bollocking” for singing “The Trees They Do Grow High”, a song from his first, self-titled album of 1965. Apparently the coffee shop he used to play in as a teenager would pay him in lemon tea and plates of spaghetti to perform there. One morning he was in school assembly when the headmaster publicly reprimanded him for having his picture in the paper performing in that café, instead of working on his homework in the safe monitored environment of his parents’ house. Interestingly the song is about a 16 year old youth – about the same age Carthy was when this happened.
In Belfast’s Black Box he would talk to his guitar as he tuned it. “Don’t be grumpy” he would say. On occasion his playing seemed more deliberate than Simpson’s, however his timing was effortless, aided and abetted by his seemingly flawless memory. The a capella “Oor Hamlet” stripped away even the guitar to highlight this. What seemed like streams of hasty consciousness were indeed a genius retelling of Hamlet (by Adam McNaughtan). You had to listen hard to get it, or most of it, or some of it. But once you plugged in you were dragged along with the dry, modern take on the tale, told at such high speed that taking gulps of air between words became part of the performance. “If you think this was boring, you should read the bloody play” went the last line. Then his eyes opened, the gesticulations stopped. It was time for Simpson to join him on stage.
The night ended with the two doyens of folk playing together, harmonising, singing medleys. In the stage-light Simpson’s shirt looked golden, like something a king would wear in one of their songs. Perhaps “Downfall of Paris” could be an example, except this song, written during the French revolution, was introduced by Carthy as “celebrating the beheading of another aristo.”
They ended the night with a bow and walked through a standing roaring audience to the green room. Two masters of their craft playing the humble Black Box in Belfast.
First published in CultureHub Magazine