Martin Carthy - Biography

By Nick Castro


Martin Carthy is one of England’s most accomplished, recognized and influential traditional folk figures. Born on May 21, 1941, Carthy began his career working as a stage manager in theatre, and in the late ’50s and early ’60s worked in the Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. Always an admirer of folk pioneers such as A.L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Cecil Sharp, he began singing in folk clubs and coffeehouses and was soon a resident artist at the Troubadour Folk Club in Earl’s Court. By 1961 he was garnering attention and playing with the group Redd Sullivan’s Thameside Four. He became known for his strong voice, the heavy-thumbed/melody-doubling picking style he used and his original interpretations of traditional tunes, often tuning his guitar in unusual keys between songs.


Carthy recorded his first album, Martin Carthy (1965 Topic), in a single afternoon, with cameos from fiddler Dave Swarbrick on many of the tracks. As far as debuts go, the acoustic album registered immediately in Brit folk revival circles. Carthy’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair” piqued the interest of Paul Simon, who would use Carthy’s arrangements into making it a hit for Simon & Garfunkel. Carthy was uncredited for the effort. Bob Dylan would also borrow Carthy’s version of the song, only he’d call it “Girl From the North Country.” Swarbrick himself went uncredited on Carthy’s namesake album, but he would continue to be a pillar in Carthy’s career, recording seven more albums with him.


Carthy’s second record was pointedly called Second Album (1966 Topic), only this time he went by Martin Carthy with Dave Swarbrick, giving the violinist his due. The traditional tune “Lord Franklin” would become one of his most influential songs for American students of UK folk, most notably Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, while the acoustic number “Sailor’s Life” would be converted into a full-fledged electric effort later by Fairport Convention. Carthy met Dylan in 1962, 18 months before Dylan’s famous Royal Festival Hall gig in 1964, and was the first person to bring him onto a UK stage for an impromptu performance.


Byker Hill (Fontana) came out in 1967, later to be repackaged and issued as Brigg Fair (1970 Fontana). The album was the first rehearsed release, as the previous albums of Carthy’s were recorded within a couple of hours of allotted studio time. Carthy’s version of “John Barleycorn” is considered one of the best interpretations of it ever recorded, and his a capella songs again showed the range of his talents.


After joining Swarbrick on Rags, Reels & Airs (1967 Elektra)—an album produced by legendary producer Joe Boyd, who worked with Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, Dr. Strangely Strange, Fairport Convention and countless other renowned acts—Carthy released But Two Came By . . . (Fontana) in 1968. This album—which fis highlighted by the spry traditional song “Banks of Sweet Primroses”—would later be repackaged as Tales of Long Ago (1970 Fontana).


Carthy’s last album of the ’60s was Prince Heathen (1969 Topic), which featured an epic and nearly 10-minute version of “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnyard.” The a capella version of “Salisbury Plain” and his incredible guitar playing on “Seven Yellow Gypsies” were also stand-out tracks.


After a two-year stint playing in folk rock outfit Steeleye Span—where he recorded Please To See The King and Ten Man Map—Carthy returned with the minimalist solo album Shearwater (Pegasus) in 1971. Fellow Steeleye Span Maddy Prior guests on “Betsy Bell and Mary Gray,” but Sheerwater is largely the voice and sparse guitar arrangements by Carthy.


Landfall (1977 Topic) was a tour-de-force, with Carthy’s numbing a capella rendition of “Cruel Mother” providing the gravity, and the flittier “The Broomfield Hill” again showing off his legendary guitar playing.  


Carthy’s subsequent album was Crown of Horn (1978 Topic) which was a big achievement in terms of incorporating synthesizers—tastefully played by Tony Cox—with traditional folk.


Because It’s There (1979 Topic) was his following LP with John Kirkpatrick, Howard Evans on trumpet and Bruce Rowlands on drums for one song. Out of the Cut (1982 Topic) would be his next album with the same trio as his previous effort, and is considered one of Carthy’s very best. Half a decade later, the venerable British folk pioneer would release Right of Passage (1988 Topic) with Kirkpatrick, Swarbrick and Chris Wood on second fiddle.


Life and Limb (1990 Special Delivery) was a dedication to famous folk musician and song collector A.L. Lloyd. After that Carthy recorded Skin and Bone (1992, Special Delivery), Signs of Life (1998 Topic) and Waiting for Angels (2004 Topic). His latest album is Straws in the Wind (2006 Topic).


In between solo albums over the years, Carthy was involved in many side projects, having spent time in the Albion Country Band, Brass Monkey and The Watersons. Starting in 1995, he began collaborating in a family affair with his wife and folk legend, Norma Waterson, their daughter, Eliza Carthy (fiddle) and son-in-law Saul Rose (melodeon) known as Waterson:Carthy. The group has put out six albums, all of them updating ancient songs that have been passed down through the generations.


For his contributions to British folk music over the past five decades, the British parliament awarded Carthy with the honor of MBE—a member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—in 1998.




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