Martin Carthy: 'I'm not interested in heritage: this stuff is alive' | Interview

On the eve of his 70th birthday, the singer and guitarist Martin Carthy talks about tradition, family – and why subversion is at the heart of English folk music

The cliff walk along North Yorkshire's wild, wonderful coastline is at last lined with primroses and blossom again, and Martin Carthy – the sage, mentor and political conscience of English folk music – has news to match the resurrection of the land as he approaches his 70th birthday.

"Norma walked for the first time since her illness yesterday," he reports, making coffee in his homely kitchen right at the entrance to the blooming Cleveland Way. That would be his wife, Norma Waterson, as renowned as Carthy himself, for this is a dynasty of musicians. "She fell ill just as the clocks went back," says Carthy, "and asked me the other day: 'Have they gone forward yet?' So she's missed the whole winter, which she hates anyway – but that's not the point." No, the point is that the Mercury-nominated singer, who had been in intensive care as far away as Warrington, is now back in Whitby hospital up the road and will soon be homeward bound.

And there are further welcome tidings: Eliza, their daughter, and the family's third renowned solo performer, is returning to the beauty of Robin Hood's Bay with her two children, so that the most accomplished family ensemble in English folk music becomes a homestead once again. Toys compete with Carthy's guitar cases for space by the sitting-room hearth – including a soft, cuddly guitar. In the Waterson-Carthy family, you learn young: "Eliza first appeared with us on stage when she was six," says Carthy. "The point came when she knew all the songs and she joined in." Now she plays the fiddle as well – like her father's longtime musical partner Dave Swarbrick – and like him is a leader in the field.

But this is Martin Carthy's moment too: all Watersons and Carthys have trajectories in music together and in their own right, and next month Carthy turns 70. He does so three days before his friend Bob Dylan, who has never failed to acknowledge his debt to Carthy's "Lord Franklin" for "Bob Dylan's Dream", nor "Scarborough Fair" for "Girl from the North Country" (Paul Simon was more famously obliged to Carthy's "Scarborough Fair"). Although Carthy insists that folk should be played at point-blank range, preferably in caverns and cellars, there will be a special birthday concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Carthy has been described as the "godfather" and "elder statesman" of English folk, but neither term feels right. Too regal, they omit the mischief, wit, fascination with the macabre; they discount that very special balance between humility towards people and certainty over his craft, and that crucial word Carthy loves: "subversion". "Folk music is by definition subversive," he says, and this, as well as the excavation of a trove of songs, is the bedrock of Carthy's immeasurable contribution to English music over half a century. It is also a heretical philosophy of great and guiding cogency.

"I regard tradition as progressive," he says, "and a traditional song as a progressive force, because it is concerned with the continuity of things." The word "radical" is derived from "radix", a root, and this is Carthy's radicalism: "You come from somewhere, for Christ's sake – it's like holding a grandchild in your arms – and let me tell you, there is nothing in parenthood to prepare you for the feeling of grandparenthood. Good folk music is like me holding my grandchildren and wanting to know more about my great, great, great uncle – I've got a picture of him – Tom Carthy from Ballybunion, County Kerry. I see his fingers on the uilleann pipes, and I see my father's hands and my grandfather's hands. The continuity of folk music is similar, because it is also our continuity."

Carthy illustrates his point with the exactitude of the cultural genealogist he is: "There's a great storyteller called Hugh Lupton, who cited the words of a man called Duncan Williamson, who said that when he told a story, he felt behind him a long line of all the people who had told that story before. What we are doing singing folk songs is full of ghosts, and that is what is exciting".The term "nostalgia" is pointless in a conversation with Martin Carthy; the past is a propulsion, a well of riches, and folk songs are the history of its common people, the expressions of their struggles, tribulations and superstitions, their guile, humour, love, lust and violence – and their "subversion", often in its subtlest form.

Carthy reflects: "The older I have got, the more the songs have become three-dimensional. They're not words set to pretty tunes. You are being told something about people. Things that are wicked, naughty, true, funny. About what human beings do to each other, and it never changes. Folk music, says Carthy, "is not an archive. If you see it as that, it becomes like a butterfly in a glass case. Folk music has to live and breathe. I'm not interested in heritage – this stuff is alive, we must claim it, use it."

Martin Carthy was born in Hertfordshire, son of a trade unionist of Irish descent, and grew up in the 1950s as a diligent schoolboy and choirboy, but also conjoined to a generation in north London with a rapacious appetite for musical exploration: playing American skiffle in coffee bars, but also hypnotised by Big Bill Broonzy and Ravi Shankar. Then, one night at Ewan McColl's Ballad and Blues club on Edgware Road, Carthy heard a Norfolk fisherman born in 1878 called Sam Larner sing a song called "Lofty Tall Ship" – "And I thought: 'What kind of song is that?!' I walked away that night stunned by the words, the sound. Whatever it was, I wanted more." Captivated by American folk, blues and bluegrass, Carthy followed their roots back to the British Isles whence many of the songs came – and, specifically, to England.

Interviewed by the local paper from Hull, Norma's home town, on the eve of his 60th birthday, Carthy said, talking about folk: "If you want to control people, you control what they read and hear. They [those in power] tried to do it with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, but they only succeeded with the English."

It is a fascinating point. Irish, Scottish and Welsh folk songs are – among many things – inherently rebel music, because they are propelled by a narrative history of uprising against English occupation and repression. Which puts English folk music somewhere else, somewhere harder to define.

"In England, people lived in a society that had been oppressed for so much longer. And so with English folk songs, you have to lift the lid to find out what is going on, and think about what is implied. This is why, for instance, there are so many songs about poaching, after the laws suddenly created criminals out of almost everyone – their way of life became a crime for which they would be hanged or deported. So poaching became a metaphor, and often the meaning wasn't too deeply hidden – look at that song 'The Gallant Poacher', it goes: 'Our goods were gone/ Our money spent/ We'd nothing left to try.' You don't have to dig very far to work that one out."

But the subversion of folk is more complicated – darker and deeper – than that. It is rage and laughter at the appalling state of things, and it still is: during a concert of political songs for Richard Thompson's Meltdown last year – and when I last saw him in Liverpool – Carthy elected to sing his hallmark "Prince Heathen", a story of murder, rape, childbirth and savagery in the most flamboyant traditions of the English folk macabre. "These are dangerous songs to sing," says Carthy. "Some of them are very, very cruel and confront people with their very worst fears."

Carthy cites a line from another of his favourites: "A cold-blooded song called 'The Death of Young Andrew', which goes: 'One night as I lay on my bed/ A dreadful draught of sleep I drew/ For I dreamed as all the trees turned brown/ That I saw the death of young Andrew.' I mean, what the fuck is going on?" asks Carthy. "When I started out, the folk scene was a highly political affair, but I didn't understand until later the way in which English folk music has a subversive quality which creeps in under the door. It gets under your skin. And so I have come to realise the value of folk music as our collective understanding of the value of subversion for and of itself."

As such, "it becomes a music of the present, of all time. I was singing a song about incest one evening – as one does," he laughs, "and a man came up to me and said: 'Where did you find that song? I come across this stuff every day of my working life!' He was a social worker; it was 1968. I think until then I was choosing songs because I found them interesting. I don't think I'd imagined until that night that I was singing about cruel, cruel things that happen every day."

But if there is a distinctive macabre in English folk, Carthy is quick to insist: "I must say this: folk music has no border checkpoints. In the end, it has – it can have – no country." Not only because it deals with primal narrative, but because of the way its protagonists, tunes and stories travel, hear, teach, learn and sing. "The Irish will make a song, and it gets to America or anywhere and it becomes a song of that place. There's a song called 'Loch Maben Harper', a Scottish subversive song that had been collected but hadn't been sung since the late 18th century. Now I've sung it a thousand times as though it were an English folk song, so what does that make it?

"You're talking about a maritime identity with a maritime culture and music," says Carthy, coming up with this irresistible notion: "Actually, I think there probably is some kind of Atlantic country which connects the west coast of the British Isles and the American eastern seaboard – and if there is, it certainly has its music." This discourse leads inevitably towards the tendency to view the English folk tradition as soundtrack to the sentiment of the UK Independence Party, or worse. Indeed, there was an illuminating exchange last year on the pages of the Guardian, which brought the "Englishness" of English folk music into harsh relief. An article by Christian Koch said of the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin: "No prizes for guessing the BNP chief's favourite type of music. Yes, it's that most arthritically white of genres, English folk."

A retort from a reader was published: "These words offend me in their ignorance and prejudice. Ancestral music is blameless in this, constantly evolving, and what does my ancestors being white have to do with anything if us civilised people know that race is irrelevant?" The author signed off: Eliza Carthy.

Good folk music in general, and Martin Carthy's songs in particular, are the antidote to, the diametric opposite of, our postmodern world of digital cacophony, crisis in concentration, library closures and hyper-materialist phantasmagoria. It makes sense that Carthy lives in a corner of England cut off from the nightmare by a sturdy buffer zone of heather and dry-stone walling.

"I think some people are ready for a revival of narrative," says Carthy. "It happened during the 1990s, when we started to have younger performers at folk clubs, and then younger audiences too. Thank God! It's been a long time coming. I remember Swarb and I playing to fourth-form kids in Bromsgrove and it didn't work at all; then we played to the sixth form and they were agog, hanging on to the narrative. I think there are more young people fed up with being told by some DJ that this is cool or that is cool."

Carthy is rarely asked about his technique as a guitarist, something which also evolves. He was always versatile – percussive, lyrical, abrasive – and played with astonishing dexterity, but now seems more often to accompany his songs with notes played in harmony or unison with the voice. And for a reason, it turns out: "I love the decisions people make when they sing you a song, the little extra accents they put in, and I'm interested in some way of playing those things as well as singing them, so the guitar too sings the song, if you like. Every instrument which plays a melody will do different things to that tune, and I've become interested in this style which is basically playing the song itself on the instrument." Then there is Carthy's singular tuning of his guitar – and his own endearing dispelling of its perceived uniqueness: "I tuned my guitar a different way from normal, to try and get a resonant sound that worked well. Then I realised that what I was doing was closely related to the tuning of a cello, so that my brilliant idea had actually been had by someone 400 years ago, and maybe that is why it worked so well."

Back to talk about the youngsters and folk, Carthy recalls "another time, in Manchester, these kids came up and said: 'You're Martin Carthy, aren't you?' I said yeah and they said: 'You must sing "Famous Flower of Serving Men"', and I said OK, but it'll have to wait until after the interval." The song's title is a play on the name of the ship that sailed from Plymouth to Massachusetts in 1620, in turn "named after the flower of bad luck and mischief", says Carthy. "And there they were, sitting right in front of me on the floor, listening. It amazed some of the older people there, but the song galvanised them, and they certainly galvanised me."

The mention of that song raises a question: who wrote that giddy tune to "Famous Flower of Serving Men" which also drives the far more famous instrumental at the end of Fairport Convention's "Matty Groves"? One does not need to know the song to savour the story: "Well, it was 1966, Swarb and I were in Skopje, doing a festival to say thank you to countries which had supported Yugoslavia. And Hedy West, whom Bob Dylan cites among his influences, was there, messing around with the tune of a song called 'Kate and the Cowhide' from Utah, written in 3/4 time. She sang a version in 9/8, and Swarb and I were flabbergasted. Well, I went on to use it in an arrangement of 'Famous Flowers' and Swarb joined Fairport and added it to 'Matty Groves'. That's what folk music is: the intuitive nature of the whole thing among people who love messing about with stuff and coming up with something else to keep the continuity going; people who aren't intimidated by how venerable it is. A song cannot survive if it is not being played – it is either played or it perishes."

Martin Carthy's 70th Birthday Concert with special guests is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 14 May. His "best of" double CD, Essential, is released by Topic Records on 9 May

To listen to a special Observer playlist of songs by Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson, go to Spotify


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

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