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Martin Carthy, The Green Note, London, February 17th 2010

February 19, 2010

One of the great dynasties of modern English traditional folk music has been the Waterson Carthy clan. The Watersons – siblings Lal, Norma, Mike and cousin John Harrison – were mainstays of traditional, mainly a cappella folk song in the 60s. Here’s the trailer to a 1965 TV documentary about them.

In the early 70s, after John left, they were augmented by Norma’s husband, Martin Carthy, who had made his name in the 60s with Dave Swarbrick, former member of the Ian Campbell Group and soon-to-be Fairport fiddler. In recent years, Norma and Martin’s daughter Eliza has also made a distinctive name for herself and the dynasty looks set to persist.

Seeing Martin perform solo demonstrates how he has spent much of his musical life backing up other singers and tunesmiths. His guitar style is sparse to the point of collapse sometimes, and his singing is not what you’d call top drawer… but of course, this is folk music, so that doesn’t matter. What Martin brings to  a show is a lifetime of unique knowledge of songs old and sometimes new. I doubt there’s a performer on the circuit who knows more songs or tunes than him.

Cheerful though Martin is by nature, he’s fond of saying, ‘I don’t do “jolly”‘ and my favourites of a cosy evening at the Green Note were mainly gloom and doom. Bill Norrie is a tragic tale of a terrible secret and Martin sings it beautifully, while Long John, Old John And Jackie North tells the unlikely tale of a 14-foot man saved from hanging by his giant friends.

We did also get some ‘jolly’ this evening, with Three Jolly Welshmen and Cuckoo’s Nest – though the latter piece of ribald filth was in an instrumental rather than sung version. All in all, Martin led  us on a very entertaining romp through English and British traditional songs. See him if you get the chance.

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