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Martin Carthy in Grizzly Folk
Martin Carthy: the Mega Interview
Jon Wilks interviewing Martin Carthy for Grizzly folk:
So, Martin… where on earth to begin?
Well, I started off with skiffle. With this kind of music [folk], anyway.
We’re talking Lonnie Donegan – that kind of thing?
Yeah. We’re talking about ‘Rock Island Line’. That was the trigger, almost, for the whole awakening of popular music, or ‘People’s Music’. Popular music in the sense that it was people’s music. Literally millions of people started buying guitars. My family already had one; my dad had a guitar in the back room, and he had a fiddle. The guitar had a couple of strings missing. I don’t know if he ever played it. There was a tutor there who I ignored. I just wanted to play ‘Worried Man Blues’ or ‘Wreck of the Old 97’.
So you picked up on Lonnie Donegan first, or were you straight into people like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie?
Leadbelly was just a name to me. Woody Guthrie, too. There was a fella at school called Mick Baker, and I’d occasionally go around to his house…
[Clears his throat and starts the story from scratch] I went to school in Bermondsey, where my dad went. My dad was from the East End and he got a scholarship to this school, which was a big deal. His sister was a professional musician, so she had to go out to work.
Music was already in the family, then?
Yeah, there’s always been someone who played something or other. My dad, actually, played the fiddle, but he stopped playing because my mum didn’t like it. She said it was too rough. I never asked the question, “What sort of music did you play?” because I thought he was incredibly uninterested in what I did, musically. He became a really ferocious musical snob.
Oh yeah. “Do proper singing. Sing properly.” My sister and I used to sing in church – I always loved singing – and I became a chorister. That sort of interfered with my folk music for a while because of the way you sing. I sound like a bloody chorister on my first record!
Some of it’s good, but some of it – when I’m singing unaccompanied – it seems to me to start veering towards Gregorian chant singing. Plain song.
Yeah, that’s how it seems to me.
Can you comfortably listen to that first album still?
Oh yeah! There are some things on it I think I couldn’t have done better. One in particular, I think, is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Which one’s that?
‘Wind That Shakes the Barley’. I concluded that it’s because I wasn’t singing right at the top of my register. I always used to try and do that, because I thought it was a more impressive sound. Back then, a lot of it was just about trying to sound good. I was interested in what the songs had to say, but it really had to sound good.
That suggests that, these days, it’s much more to do with what the song has to say.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not half as well-equipped as I was when I was 24, but I’m a better singer now.
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