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Not-so-rapid-fire questions with Martin Carthy

From Paul Simon to Billy Bragg to Stewart Lee; from Peggy Seeger to Eliza Carthy to Anaïs Mitchell, some of Martin Carthy's biggest fans line up the questions...

Ahead of Martin Carthy’s ‘Remember Me to One Who Lives There’ tour, a selection of celebrity folk fans, family, and former collaborators put questions to the great man himself. Scroll down for minor interrogations from Paul Simon, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson, Martin Simpson, Angeline Morrison, Eliza Carthy, Anaïs Mitchell, Stewart Lee, Peggy Seeger and so many more.

It’s the life I’ve loved. I really did love that life.

Martin Carthy

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Martin on the tour? Click here, fill in the form and we’ll see what we can do…

Billy Bragg: “You bought Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and Lonnie Dongan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ on the same day in 1957. Which of these two artists had the greater influence on your career?”

Oh, certainly Lonnie. Probably because he wasn’t middle-aged and fat [laughs]. Although, mind you, Bill Haley had a fabulous lead guitarist called Franny Beecher. And he could play. He was way beyond my capabilities. But there was a real fire in what Lonnie did. A lot of people who know a lot about this stuff still can’t stand what he did to ‘Rock Island Line’, but I just say a great big thank you to him because he’s the one who launched that massive guitar explosion that happened in the mid-to-late 50s. Literally, millions of guitars were sold as a direct result of ‘Rock Island Line’ and the skiffle boom, which he was responsible for. There were others, too – people like the Chas McDevitt group with Nancy Whiskey. I used to live just across the road from Nancy Whiskey and would occasionally, accidentally, have my guitar in my hand as she walked past the house [laughs]. She was living with this very good boogie-woogie pianist called Bob Kelly. He swung like mad.

Did you know Lonnie?

No, I didn’t meet him until much later. He dismissed anything that I had to say, so I just let him be. He thought folkies were rubbish. He did a very good album much later on in his career, and the best track on it was ‘Diggin My Potatoes’. A fabulous version, which Brian May [and Elton John] played on. It’s very good indeed – the best version of ‘Diggin My Potatoes’ that ever was. It was very rude and the guitar on that was just sensational.

Paul Simon: “Martin, who influenced your finger-picking style of guitar playing?”

It would certainly be Elizabeth Cotten, or Libba Cotten as she was known. She had this wonderful way of playing that I could never understand. Her guitar playing was only discovered because she worked in the Seeger household. They only found out about it when they walked into the house and heard this gorgeous guitar playing. “Who’s put a record on? Who’s that a recording of?” And they sort of crept in and there was Libba sitting there with her back to them with the guitar the wrong way around. She was dreadfully embarrassed but they realized they had a find in their midst… I’m presuming. Maybe I’m over-romanticising it, but I think that’s the size of it. There was this person who lived in their midst that they didn’t know anything about.

I think I figured out she played left-handed, but I didn’t understand that she played upside down. So you had to use your imagination to get a similar sound because everything’s upside-down and there are things that she can do that a right-handed person can’t do.

How did you come across her? Was it ‘Freight Train’?

Yeah, it was ‘Freight Train’. I read the article in the Daily Herald which said that Chas McDevitt had lost a lot of money because he claimed authorship of ‘Freight Train’ and it was registered to Elizabeth Cotten. He lost an awful lot of money from that.

After reading that, I went into Dobell’s Record Shop on Charing Cross Road and there were millions of jazz records. Wonderful. Doug Dobel was great. He always had one box on the counter which was full of folk records. And I’m flipping through this and, “Oooh, a Folkways record. What’s this? Negro Folk Songs and Tunes sung by Elizabeth Cotten.” I knew she was the ‘Freight Train’ person, so I immediately snapped it up and took it home and then had a bit of a struggle playing it because we didn’t have a proper record player [laughs], but I think my parents borrowed one or something. I thought she was utterly wonderful and the guitar playing was totally enchanting. It was all in the touch and all in the feel. I think of her as my great influence.

What’s your earliest memory of seeing Paul Simon? Do you remember watching him in any of folk clubs and coffee bars?

I was told about him by this bloke, Paul McNeill. Paul had heard about Paul Simon, and he was admiring him because he was a proper songwriter. Paul Simon had phoned up the man who ran Brentwood Folk Club, a bloke called Dave, and had offered his services as a resident at his club. That’s the story, anyway, for five pounds a week. And Dave was going around saying, who is this man? Who’s this Paul Simon? Paul McNeill had seen him and he came to me and said, “Do you know anything about him? He’s a songwriter.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of him.”

He sang one or two of Paul Simon’s songs to me, and they were well-made songs. One of them might even have been ‘The Sound of Silence’, I don’t know. But he sang a couple of the songs and I was intrigued. It was very American thinking, but that’s no bad thing because the Americans could always perform. And I so said that to Paul McNeill, I said, “There’s a really good chance he’ll be a good performer because American kids learn to perform at school” – they learn to stand up in front of an audience and talk to them and sing and do a tap dance or whatever the hell they want to do. It’s part of the learning process at American schools and colleges. And he said, “What do I tell Dave?” I said, “Well, what you do is you tell him to accept it. If he’s good, keep him on. If he’s rubbish, sack him [laughs].” It seemed obvious to me. And he was a very good performer. I mean, very good, very solid. And he wrote all the time. He worked hard on his songwriting. I think I might have found out later that he had some sort of a deal with CBS and he’d been sent away to disappear so that he could then be launched on an unsuspecting world.

Do you remember him having any interest in the traditional stuff, in the way that Bob Dylan was, or was he mainly a singer/songwriter?

My feeling was that he was interested in the stuff we were all doing because traditional music was a part of his life, I suppose. He was well-equipped to sing in British folk clubs.

Richard Thompson: “Martin was pretty much in at the ground floor when the folk club scene started up in the UK. I’d love to know his take on the various schools of thought at the time – Ewan McColl’s dogma, skiffle, clubs with no instruments allowed, socialism/communism, etc – and how that evolved through the decades to where we are now.”

When I first saw Ewan, I went along to what was known as the Ballads and Blues Club. It was interesting because it was way before blues cut itself off from [pauses]… well, it depends how you view it… I think the blues people were kicked out of the folk revival, which is a shame because there were some great players. People like Wizz Jones had a huge repertoire that went across from trad English stuff to written stuff. He sang a few of Ewan’s songs and went right across into blues and jazz. He was a big fan of Ray Charles, as we all were, and of course Big Bill Broonzy.

Blues was recognized by the left as a folk music, which was unusual at the time. Not to me, because I felt it was all folk music. I was pleasantly startled when I saw that there was a live recording of Pete Seeger with Big Bill Broonzy in a New York Club. But then Big Bill had a very wide repertoire.

How did you feel about that dogmatic style that Ewan MacColl was known for?

Well, it was just drawing a line somewhere that didn’t need to be drawn. I went and watched him do a show at the Cora Hotel which was home to Ballads and Blues for a short while. It was very self-absorbed, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. Somebody shouted from the audience, “Tell us a Charlie Penderleith story”. And he started talking about Charlie Penderleith and he told his story, which I just simply did not get. [It was like these people were] worshipping at someone’s altar. I didn’t take to it at all. And later on came this whole notion of only singing songs from your area and that skifflers were rubbish; all the younger generation of musicians were rubbish. And he beat that drum for quite a few years, famously on the BBC when he said that if you put electric instruments to folk music it’s rather like having a Beethoven quartet with three electric guitars and bongo drums, and that might be okay, but it’s not Beethoven. And I remember thinking, “doesn’t that rather depend on how good the bongo players and electric guitar players are?”

Did Ewan ever come around to what you were doing?

Well, the thing was that I took the guitar very seriously [but] we were all rubbish. All the guitar players apart from Wizz Jones, Steve Benbow and Davey Graham were rubbish players. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. I could sometimes use the Big Bill Broonzy knowledge I’d picked up when I was in the Thameside Four in the backup guitar department. But when it came to singing, I wasn’t very good. I was very enthusiastic. In the very early days, I had that “Around the World on the Magic Carpet of My Guitar” repertoire, because that’s what people did. And then I disappointed a lot of people by suddenly ditching all of that and going for trad English, and that was on having heard Sam Larner. That was a serious moment in my life. That was a life-changing thing. And Ewan was in the driving seat for the whole evening and he never sang once. He wanted everybody to hear his number one working-class hero, who was this 80-year-old man – Sam – who had been singing with Ewan for the last two or three days.

Sam’s voice was tired, but was not tired was the spirit and the passion of the whole thing. I was completely blown out of my chair by what he did. Ewan was very skillful and very, very good at showing what this person could mean. He’d heard him sing at his very, very best, which he still could do. I think Ewan was too excited to have his favorite next to him and they just sang to each other for a couple of days, maybe three days, I don’t know how long, but Sam was staying with him and he was a stone cold gas. He was utterly wonderful the whole way. Ewan would suggest a song and I would think, “Oh, I know that because I know my English Folk Songs for Schools.” And he would start to sing the song and it was nothing like English Folk Songs for Schools. It was much more rough and tumble and a lot more fun. Fascinating, musically, because I had a good sense of pitch. And when he finished up with his ‘Henry Martin/ Lofty Tall Ship’ song, I was absolutely thunderstruck. I thought, what kind of a tune is that?

I was suddenly faced with this idea that just because you’re English, it doesn’t mean you’re going to understand English music.

Martin Carthy

You have to remember, this is the 1950s and pop music was, god bless him, Dicky Valentine or anybody like that – “I’m a pink toothbrush, you’re a blue toothbrush, will you marry me one day?” and crap like that. It was a wonderful growing-up moment when I first heard Sam Larner sing and doing stuff with all that complexity. I remember walking down the street singing bits of the tune that he had just sung. God, how many tunes were there? There were two distinct tunes to ‘Lofty Tall Ship’ [Roud 104], and with the second one, there were variations that just left me gasping. There was a shape there, but I was damned if I could get it. I didn’t get it until much later on. I’d sing a bit of a line myself, saying, “What kind of a tune is that?” This is a tune – this is a traditional tune – this is an old tune. And there was a complexity there that bewildered me, and I was suddenly faced with this idea that just because you’re English, it doesn’t mean you’re going to understand English music. This was an utterly different beast. I was completely turned upside down by Sam Larner and I wanted it; I wanted that. I knew that was the fountainhead, if you like.

Did you get to speak to Sam?

I was much too shy. What was I going to ask him? “Where did you learn that song?” [fakes a goofy laugh]. He just gave everything he’d got to the evening and it was a lesson in passion. Ewan joined in, to a certain extent, but never tried to overshadow Sam.

So I had seen two entirely separate and utterly confusing versions of Ewan: this person who was preening himself in front of an audience at the Cora Hotel and made me angry and just dismissive, and this man who gave the whole evening without allowing any kind of ego in the way.

To go back to Richard’s question, he asked also about the introduction of instruments into folk clubs. The likes of Ewan were very strict about there being no instruments in those early days. Were there certain musicians on the scene who were like, “We’re going to bring our instruments in”?

Well, there was me! I was one of them. I had fallen in love with the guitar. Everything I did, everything I learned, I would eventually perform when I could play it. And sometimes I had to wait 20 years. ‘Lofty Tall Ship’ was always there. ‘Dream of Napoleon’ [Roud 1538] was always there. ‘What was the other one? ‘Bonny Woodhall’ [Roud 3778], which I learned from Geordie Hamilton. He had this wonderful high, tenor voice. When he sang ‘Bonny Woodhall’, he came to me and he said, “You should learn this song, son. Learn it! Learn it!” [Prods the air with a finger] And then he sat down. I swear to God, that’s what happened. I’d seen him doing the same thing to other people. He loved to give his songs away. He’d sing his songs at someone, you’d get one shot and he would just drive the song into your brain. This was probably 1961. I always had that song in the back of my mind.

When you took that guitar into the folk clubs in the early days, was there quite a lot of shock and horror?

Well, you were ignored. I couldn’t really play. I remember I actually sang at the Cora Hotel one night and I hadn’t taken a guitar with me. And Bruce Dunnet, the man who sat on the door at the Ballads and Blues and later on at the Singers Club, said, “You’re singing your song tonight.” I said, “I haven’t got a guitar.” “Fitzroy will lend you his.” This is Fitzroy Coleman, who was a fabulous jazz guitarist, and Ewan would have him at his side accompanying some of his songs. He wrote his own calypsos and some of them were hilarious. He’s just a very funny man and a really gorgeous guitar player with a really light touch.

So I went up and I looked at Fitzroy and I said, “Can I use your guitar?” And he looked at me and he grinned. And I should have been warned by the grin. He handed me the guitar and I played this song that was a sailor’s return song that was so romantic, and I had this way of playing it. And he sat there and he watched me, and on the last verse I did one little guitar change and I couldn’t get it right. I saw his head drop down and he started to laugh very quietly to himself. I managed to finish the song and Ewan was very dismissive of it. He wasn’t nasty, he just dismissed it. And I handed the guitar back to Fitzroy and he just turned the neck towards me and he pointed. And between the first and third strings there was his plectrum, just parked on the first fret. I was doing all right until I had to play that last chord. “What the hell?” I couldn’t understand what was going on. And of course, he found it hysterical. Why didn’t I feel it straight away? I was just too busy concentrating. I think I was deafened by the sound of my own knees knocking [laughs].

Martin Simpson in concert at Whitchurch Folk Club, Hampshire. He is in the spotlight, holding his guitar and smiling. There is a prominent swallow tattoo on his right forearm.

Martin Simpson: “I’m thinking of influences that you have absorbed, which may not be generally known nowadays. Would you talk a little bit about Bill Broonzy’s thumb? And Hedy West’s ‘Kate and the Cowhide’?”

Big Bill Broonzy was the person who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. Play it, as I thought, properly. I could never get my tonsils around the singing but I could do a pretty good Big Bill Broonzy imitation on the guitar. He would do that wonderful hard-driving blues; he used to do that thumb thing and tramp down on the low strings. He swung like mad. But he could also do extraordinarily subtle stuff, too. His timing was absolutely exquisite. He never dropped or gained a beat. He was fabulous.

Did you see him live, Big Bill?

No, I never saw him. I just heard him on record. I knew people who’d been to see him. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where to look for anywhere that he might be. I knew that he’d been in England and he would, in all probability, come again. But I didn’t know how to ask. I would have gone.

But Big Bill Broonzy’s thumb… I took that into my playing and consciously used it when I was singing ‘Gallant Poacher’ [Roud 793]. And I had a way of playing it and then I started to actually use the thumb as a beat, using the fingers to play the melody.

So that comes from Bill?


So, every time I play a tune and I’m using that thumb thing and I think, “Damn it, I’m ripping off Martin Carthy again,” I’m actually ripping off Big Bill Broonzy?

Yeah! It wasn’t exactly the same, but that’s his derivation, certainly. I’m always delighted when I go and watch Wizz Jones because, just occasionally, he’ll drop into it. He could do Big Bill Broonzy like that [clicks his fingers]. Still can. And he does it very occasionally because he has this fabulously wide repertoire. I’m still full of admiration for Wizz because he soldiered on throughout, busked when he needed to, gave up gigging when there wasn’t anything around and drove trucks for a living. He never gave up the guitar

Is there a Big Bill Broonzy song that people should go and listen to as an example of where you got that idea from?

‘Guitar Shuffle’ was one, or ‘When I Been Drinking‘. That’s one of his.

What about the Hedy West influence? Where does that come in?

The ‘Kate and the Cowhide Story’… yes. When Swarb and I joined up in 1966, one of the first things we did was this little tour around Sheffield, then he went off to Denmark to be with his new true love, and then he brought her back. We started working together and over a week we constructed a repertoire. One of the early gigs we got was a British Council gig to Skopje in what’s now known as North Macedonia. There had been a very serious earthquake and the countries that had sent aid were invited to a festival every year to say thank you. Britain had sent aid so we were selected. We were the new boys on the block as far as the British Council was concerned. They knew that Swarb could play, and I was one of the young guitar players who was around, but they didn’t know whether I was any good or not so they consulted with Fontana Records, who had signed me, and I had made an album for them which was very highly thought of.

Anyway, we were in a theatre, and I was looking across because it was semi-dark – it was the auditorium, so the lights were on on the stage – and I remember looking across a couple of rows and I thought, “I know that face”. There was a moment of silence, and I yelled, “Hedy!’ And this person jumped and looked across and it was Hedy West. She had just made the journey from Sofia in Bulgaria because she used to spend quite a lot of time in Eastern Europe because she loved the music.

She had a habit of playing with the time signatures of songs that she was learning from the Appalachians. One of the songs she was playing at the time was a version of the ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ [Roud 1], and there was a chorus at the end of it that had an extra beat. She always used to play the extra beat and I was really excited by that because I thought most people would have regularized it. But she was really hooked on this. She loved the idea that you could do that, and it was an American tradition. The guy who sang it did that every time.

We just chummed up – Swarb, myself and Hedy – and we went out and spent some time by the river. There were these big rock pools full of frogs, and occasionally they poked their heads above the water. I was absolutely fascinated by this. I was spending time trying to see where the next one would come up. Hedy was hugely impressed by my patience [laughs]. But there was one tune that she was playing because I asked her about this ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ song. I can’t remember if it had a 5/4 bar at the end of it or a 7/4 bar. Could have been a seven. Whatever it was, it was the same every time and sounded absolutely wonderful. And it was natural. It hadn’t been forced on it in any way. That was the way the song went, and she was being faithful to it.

So, then she started talking about this album that she and Cyril Tawney were planning of unthought-of songs, because there was a whole lot of stuff in the American repertoire that people wouldn’t touch because it’s hard, and she wanted to do this album of some of the lesser-known Child ballads. Cyril went straight to Baring-Gould and dug out some songs and there was this song that she knew as ‘Kate and the Cowhide’, and Cyril knew it as ‘The Maid of Colchester’. But it was the melody that Hedy was messing with, which she’d learned from a little collection of songs from Utah.

The tune was not very interesting but what Hedy did was to take it and start messing with its time signature. She started off in 2/4 and went through 3/4 and it’s not interesting, then 4/4, and then she just started going into the fives and the sixes, which can be fascinating, and the sevens. She got through them and she thought they were all right and she’d reached nine. So what she actually played was the tune that Swarb used, eventually, for Fairport Convention’s version of ‘Matty Groves’ – that tune they used as a playout, which I used for ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’. And I played the right! [Laughs] With Swarb’s version, the last measure was not nine, it was eight or something. I sang it to Hedy five years later. She said, “You use that tune! You play it!” So I played it and she said, “That’s not the way I play it now.” I think she did it in a twelve – a very odd twelve from somewhere in the Balkans.

Ian A. Anderson: “We once sat up half the night trying to transcribe Lord Buckley’s, ‘The Gasser’. How did you first come across his recordings, and would you recommend a thorough grounding in his works to the youth of today?”

Yes, indeed I would. It’s the beginning of jive talk! I first heard of Lord Buckley through Redd Sullivan. He knew bits and pieces of it. I believe that what he knew ended up driving, I think ended up driving Billy Connolly’s version of Jesus and the disciples, where they were all from the Gallagate, instead of Galilee. I’ve never asked him, but I bet he knows Lord Buckley, because Buckley’s version of the Jesus Christ story is just extraordinary: ‘The Nazz’!

Where does one start with Lord Buckley, then?

Well, ‘The Nazz’. That’s one way. That’s one of his signature pieces. There was one called ‘Nero‘, which was wonderful. It’s sensational. I’ve got a couple of his albums. One of them, one I love, is slightly damaged. It’s heartbreaking. He also did one called ‘The Hip Gahn‘, which was about Gandhi. He would expand it all the time, improvising. I’ve still got the records. I’ve forgotten most of it, but anything by Lord Buckley is worth investigating.

The folk singer Lisa Knapp stands in front of green trees, staring straight into the camera. Her hair is dyed blonde and she has a serious look on her face.

Lisa Knapp: “When it feels right, where do you go when you sing? Where is your head at?”

Well, these days it goes to the words; what the words can do to the melody. And it’s not anything particularly radical. Sometimes I get the notion to have some fun and it’s details more than anything when you’ve got that freedom; when everything is going dead right and you really do get the feeling that anything can happen, everything sits down properly.

Anaïs Mitchell: “Some old songs fall by the wayside, while others will be sung forever. What do you think gives a song its staying power?”

It’s honesty. It’s straightforwardness. It’s an insistence on the truth, whatever you think the truth is. It never compromises. You must tell the truth.

And I suppose, when people say to you, “Oh, you can’t sing about those things anymore”, then not to sing those things is to not be telling the truth, right?

Yeah. Absolutely. [But] I’ve sung songs with tunes that I’m not terribly happy with because I enjoyed playing it. I used to enjoy playing ‘Lucy Wan’ [Roud 234], and I’ve really messed about with that a lot. Swarb and I did a version of it that I think is pretty good. And I think Bert Lloyd, who, in my view, made that tune or made the basis of that tune because I messed about with it a lot – a fierce amount of variation on his basically very simple tune, which I don’t think he was ever happy with. He might well have been as dismayed at my messing with his ‘Lucy Wan’ as I am with the people who messed with my ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ [Roud 199], introducing the irrelevance of a stepmother. It’s irrelevant. The truth of the matter is that a mother did it. It’s the cruel mother. It’s not the cruel stepmother. And I’ve angered a couple of guys by trying to insist that because they simply won’t accept it, saying it’s got to be the stepmother. Well, that, for me, is a huge step along the path towards panto – the horrible stepmother and ugly sisters. They can’t be pretty. They’ve got to be ugly. Yeah? Go away.

Emily Portman Interviewed by Tradfolk

Emily Portman: “I’d love to hear what your current favorite songs to play are. I’m interested to know if they’re long-standing favorites or newly unearthed songs.”

The one I’m battling to get back is ‘Bill Norrie’ [Roud 53]. I have to get that back. I’ve just got to be brave and stand up and do it. I lost it during three years of lockdown when I lost gigs right, left and centre… which I never canceled. I canceled no gigs at all unless I was ill.

When you say you have to be brave and get on with singing a song, is the bravery in the feeling that you might mess it up?

Well, it’s a complex tune. It’s in 12/8, which absolutely knocked Andy Irvine out when he heard it. He said, “My God, you’re doing a 2-2-3-2-3, aren’t you?” And I said, “Hang on a minute…” [counts on his fingers] “Yes, I am, that’s right!” [Laughs] Because I just made up this tune and I tried it in 7/4 and I tried it in 5/4 and I couldn’t make up my mind. So I just basically stuck the two together and then enjoyed it enormously because it’s wonderful to play. But on a whim one night, I cut out most of the guitar playing. I just simplified it right down to as close to nothing as I could get, and it worked wonderfully well. So I did it that way from then on, and then just when I got used to it, the pandemic happened.

How many years did it take before it embedded itself then, do you think?

10 years, I’d say. Maybe longer. I was just simplifying it all the time. And what you’re doing all the way through is basically hypnotizing yourself, and then you find you simply cannot lose time. But when doubt comes in, then you are screwed. I’ve just got to get past that and just do it.

Anyway, that’s the one I love. In a sense, I was given that one because I had volume three of Child out and it fell open on this page. I looked at the top right-hand corner, and I saw this line. It said, “If I hadn’t known him as your son, he would not have been killed by me.” And I said, “Who the hell are you?” I flicked back a few pages and thought, “I’m having you” [laughs]. “How did I miss you?” It was just a wonderful moment. And when you have these magic moments, you’ve got to follow them.

Peggy Seeger: “When you’re committing a long ballad to memory, do you ever add words, phrases or whole verses of your own composition?”

And every time I sang that verse, I got that little prickle up the back of the neck, thinking, “You lucky, lucky sod”.

Martin Carthy

Yes. I can think of one straight away: ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. The really extraordinary thing is, I was quite sure that there was a single-verse version, which I needed, and I knew where it was. And I went to Bronson and I turned the pages, I found the one-verse version, and this other verse came into my head and I wrote it down and shut the book. I couldn’t find my verse after that. I went looking for it just so I could be honest and say, “Yeah, I pinched this verse”. The verse was, “And there come a girl from the north-northeast/ So loud, so loud it weep/ It cried, Patrick Spens and all of his men/ Are drowning in the deep”. It just came as a piece and I went looking for it but it wasn’t there.

That’s the sort of thing that happens: little moments of magic when you’re desperately looking. It doesn’t always happen. You bang your head against a brick wall for ages sometimes, but when it arrives, it’s a moment of triumph. And every time I sang that verse, I got that little prickle up the back of the neck, thinking, “You lucky, lucky sod”. It’s one of those wonderful things that can happen when you believe.

John Kirkpatrick: “Some of the long ballads that you’ve done were supported by massive guitar parts full of huge chords and tonnes of energy. I’m thinking of ‘Prince Heathen’. ‘Long John, Old John and Jackie North’, ‘Famous Flower’. How do you feel when you listen to those recordings again? Do you wish that you’d done any of them differently at the time? And do you feel that you’re doing them more in a more laid-back manner these days?”

Swarb was a tune magnet. The human magnet.

Martin Carthy

I’d say I do all of them much more slowly now. That’s partly to do with being an old git, I think, because it’s bloody hard work playing at that speed. I’m always astonished at how quick ‘Prince Heathen’ [Roud 3336] was on the album. I did it with Swarb. That was a magic moment because, in those days, Swarb and I never rehearsed. I remember with ‘Prince Heathen’, I leaned it and we were playing at Chelmsford Folk Club. I leaned in and said, “Well, it’s in a sort of D-minor but there’s a G in the bass – you’ll get it, you’ll see it”. And he tuned a couple of strings down and we started to play. He stopped after a bit and he adjusted the tuning and I carried on playing. He could pick up a tune easily. He was a tune magnet. The human magnet. He never had any problem learning a song or tune. Further into the song, he stopped again, tuned a bit, and at the end of the song, he said, “Write these notes down”, which was the tuning he was in. I wrote them all down. I said, “Is that right?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s it. Don’t lose that piece of paper”. So I put it in the guitar case, nice and safe. And I think the next day we did it. He altered one string very slightly – that’s my memory of it, anyway. He had found the tuning during the nine minutes, or whatever it was it took to sing that song.

You’ve got different versions of songs that you did in the past, like ‘Scarborough Fair’, which is a newer version now, and ‘Geordie’ versus ‘Georgie’. Is that partly due to getting older and choosing slower versions, or is it a matter of taste; do you still find inspiration in finding these alternative versions?

It’s a bit of both, really. I heard Jim Eldon sing a version of ‘Georgie’ [Roud 90]. As a result of hearing it like that, I still called it ‘Geordie’. It was something about the pace at which he took the song that really spoke to me. So I tried that and always credited him with the idea. It became something particularly radical because I started hearing other things and trying to include them. But it was hearing Levi Smith sing ‘Georgie’ was one of those revelatory moments, like Sam Larner. That melody that he sings… [shakes head in wonder]. And then I heard his brother doing it, and there were a couple of variations that he slung in that just spoke loud and clear. “Go on, have a go at that. Try and play that.” I just love Jasper’s version. A fabulous, gorgeous piece of music.

I sang that a couple of times to Sheema Mukherjee. She went bananas and was like, “What’s that? What’s that? Play it again!” She was knocked sideways by it. She’s a fabulously sophisticated musician. There’s a sophistication in what a sitar player does that is beyond anything you and I do. I just love her. She understands. I played her ‘Lofty Tall Ship’. I think of that as a complex tune but she got it straight away.

Going back to John’s list of songs… ‘Long John, Old John and Jackie North’ [Roud 3100]. I made that up. I was sitting in bed thinking, “I want to do ‘Long John’. When I first heard it sung, it was Robert Williamson who sang it, and it was just fabulous. Different melodies, all that, but it was the story that was so fabulous and I just started messing with the Francis James Child version on the inside back page of Child. I actually wrote down a version of the song and looked at it and decided just to do it. But at some point after I’d recorded it, I was never satisfied with it. And at one point Roy Palmer phoned up and he wanted to print ‘Long John’ in a book of British ballads, and I said, “I’ve now got a last verse”, which is the way it’s printed in the book – I don’t sing it on the recorded version because it came later. It just completes the whole thing, and it’s lovely. I love to sing it and, giving it that last verse, it just wraps the whole thing up with a nice tidy bow, and it became a real favorite. I have loved doing it and I will start doing it again. It’s an absolutely enchanting song to sing. It really is, because it’s such fun. Everybody has such a good time. Yeah, I was very pleased with that one and slowed it down slightly, I think.

Peter Knight: “Back in the day, we both found ourselves in Steeleye Span at the same time. When I look back at my time with the band, I think mainly about the music. Please to See the King… that was not bad at all. We worked hard. Your guitar riff that brought out the beauty of ‘Lovely on the Water’ – I remember the moment you came up with it to this day. Thank you. When you look back at your time with the band, as a man and a musician, what sort of thoughts and memories do you have, and where does Steeleye figure within your life’s journey?”

Well, Please to See The King was a magic moment and remains for me a magic moment. Sometimes I think some of it is a tad clumsy, but nah, I just remember the magic. ‘Cold, Hailey, Windy Night’ [Roud 135]… the version that we did on that record is the best version I’ve ever done of that song. And it was because of Maddy Prior’s harmony. She’s a miraculous harmony singer. She just produced this mind-blowing second part. That’s why we’ll always be mates [laughs]. We just came together like that and produced the goods.

My time in that band was incredibly happy and incredibly productive. I am delighted whenever I look back on it. We had Peter! I said it to at least one member of the band, it might have been Ashley, “When we’re singing on stage and we’re having trouble hearing, I always look across to Peter and I listen to what he’s doing.” His intonation was just about perfect. Want to be in tune? Follow Peter. I told him that just the other week at Sidmouth Folk Festival and he was all Mr. Bashful. But it’s true. He had all that drilling from the Royal College and he drilled himself when he was learning Irish music. He had a wonderful understanding of the complexity of trad music and he just went for it. I just remember him standing there, absolutely bolt upright, never leaning over the fiddle, just playing. Reg Hall heard that band at the National Festival one year and I walked past him and he looked at me and he said, “God, that’s fabulous.”

Jim Moray sits on the steps of Abbey Road Studios wearing a red Harrington jacket, blue jeans and playing an Atkin acoustic guitar.

Jim Moray: “When you joined Steeleye Span, you played a bright blue Telecastler through a huge Fender amp. Had anyone suggested going electric before then? And have you been tempted to play electric guitar since? I can imagine an electric version of Brass Monkey sounding really good.”

Well, by the time I got into Brass Monkey, I’d run into a brick wall on the guitar and I started playing mandolin a lot, which is why some of those arrangements are so very different. John and I would work them out beforehand. Our signature piece, ‘The Maid and the Palmer’ [Roud 2335], John and I worked out as John drove and I was messing around on the mandolin. I was producing little bits. “How’s that, John?” “I can play that. It’s easy for me. I can do that. We’ll have a go at it.”

It was a development of the version that we did on that live album that Steeleye did [Live at Last] towards the end of my second time around with them. What we did in Brass Monkey was a development of that. By that time we had the brass, we had two fabulous players, and we had people who were actually hungry for it. We were all of us, really hungry for the possibilities that Brass Monkey was offering us. We were doing something that nobody had tried before.

I’ve been having a great time just learning, learning and learning, and I’m a much better player for it.

Martin Carthy

Have you ever been tempted to go back to the electric? Do you ever get it out or are you purely acoustic now?

I did briefly. I think it’s on Because It’s There. I think that’s the one where I did a version of ‘Lovely Joan’ and I did it on the guitar because I’d recently started playing the guitar in the tuning I’m using now. At one point I picked up the electric guitar and worked out something that I could play. And it’s momentary. Momentarily, I revisited the electric guitar, and played something in a particular way that I’d not thought of before.

Had anyone suggested, or had you thought of using an electric before you joined Steeleye?

Well, it was the fact that I was joining an electric band and it seemed the right thing to do. I went into Sound City and I bought that blue electric guitar. I asked Ashley, “What should I play? Should I play a Stratocaster?” And he said, “No, I think you should play a Telecaster. You and the Telecaster seemed to go together.” And I just took his advice and I spent £110 on this bright blue secondhand Telecaster, and I bought a lead with it. I just turned up and just turned it on and tuned it to my tuning. Stefan Grossman said, “Ah, within six months, you’ll be in normal tuning, playing just like everybody else”. I said to myself, “No’.

But I did a very disappointing teaching album. I didn’t know enough about this tuning. I didn’t know enough about the electric guitar. I didn’t know enough about anything on this particular trip I’ve been on for the last 40 years, or whatever it is. I’ve been having a great time just learning, learning and learning, and I’m a much better player for it.

Do you still have that blue Telecaster?

No, it ended up with Steeleye. I left it with Steeleye and they assumed that it was theirs. I left it behind because the band was skint.

Daragh Lynch: “Martin once told me that he came up with a tuning that was one or two steps away from DADGAD, which he then showed to Davey. And then Davey ended up devising DADGAD. So I guess my question is, (A) what was that original tuning, and (B) how does he feel about being somewhat responsible for a guitar style in an entire genre of music (traditional Irish)?”

Actually, I could never get on with DADGAD. It just drove me nuts. If I wanted to change the key, I had to stick on a capo. There are people who can make it make sense, but I’m not one of them. So what I did was I went all mechanical. The thing about Davey, I said to myself, is he loves to play on the top four strings and you like to play on the middle four strings. So let’s mess about with that tuning, shall we? What I did was to shift the whole thing over so that 123456 became 2345, and 6 is no good because it’s way down your boots somewhere. I ended up with DADEAE and I started messing about with it and, whoa, I could play in two keys. Actually, Davey took this tuning for a recording he did for Stefan Grossman. I played like that for a while. In fact, that’s how I played in Steeleye both times and enjoyed it enormously. But then I got obsessed with learning how to play ‘Lovely Joan’ [Roud 592], because it always nagged at me that I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Swarb sort of said, “Oh, we’ll just do it. Just play some chords and we’ll just do it anyway.” And I did that on the first album but I was never satisfied with it and we never did it in public. Swarb used to love the tune, so when I could play it [in a way that I liked it] I’d often just throw it in for fun.

By that time I’d gone to work on it. I’d had an all-nighter tuning the guitar, and I found out that I could play DADEAB and I could actually play ‘Lovely Joan’. And I played it to myself, got up on stage and immediately strangulated myself because I couldn’t sing that high. We had Chris Foster staying with us around that time, and he always practiced every morning. I remember asking him, “What have you done with your fifth string? Is that tuned down to G?” And he said, “Yeah”. I said, “Heavy gauge string?” And he said, “Yeah”. And I thought, “Oh” [laughs]. So I went, I tuned my guitar, everything down a whole step. So instead of being DADEAB, I was in CGCDGA. And I could sing it. I was absolutely ecstatic. Answer to all my prayers! Wonderful. I figured that out in the late 70s and that’s where I’ve stayed ever since.

Finn Curran-Carthy: “Grandad, is your guitar tuning for professional purposes or do you just want to be special?”

[Sits speechless for a minute, mouth agog, then roars with laughter]. Yeah, I like the idea of being different. I do. I heard about DADGAD in the 1960s and found it impossible. I started working on something that worked very well for a while and then didn’t work. It needed adjusting and then readjusting, and that became absolutely exciting. It was exciting to want to be different. And this actually seemed to work.

Eliza Carthy, Finn Curran-Carthy, and Grandad. Photo credit: Eliza Carthy

And it has become your tuning, hasn’t it? When I came and visited you in Yorkshire recently, you were showing me your tuning and you were saying, “I show this to a lot of people and I hope that they can take it and do something with it.” But the trouble is, the second that you actually put your guitar into that tuning, there’s only one person you’re copying. I’ve had my guitar in your tuning for a few weeks recently and I’ve been playing around with it and enjoying it. But really, it’s your tuning. It belongs to the boss.

[Laughs] There must be other things that can happen in that tuning. There must be. Actually, it’s like telling a cello player that you can only do things in CGDA. I just happen to have another C and another G.

Eliza Carthy, folk singer, stands beneath a tree with the green leaves spilling over her shoulder. Her turquoise hair is piled up on top of her head and she is staring straight into the camera with a serious look on her face.

Eliza Carthy: “Can we have a new washing machine, please?”

[Laughs] Yes, my darling. Yes. Just go out and buy it. Wave a piece of paper at them and they’ll rush to deliver it.

Eliza Carthy, folk singer, stands beneath a tree with the green leaves spilling over her shoulder. Her turquoise hair is piled up on top of her head and she is staring straight into the camera with a serious look on her face.

Eliza Carthy: “The serious question is this: people always ask me what advice you gave me when I was starting out and my response is always a silly one. You and I both know what the answer to that was. But now that Finn is starting to play music, what piece of non-silly advice would you offer him?”

Never stop. There’s always something else around the corner that will jump up and bite you on the bum. It will happen. And I think Finn is hungry. He’s playing one of the electrics – a bit on the acoustic, too, but he does like the electric.

Are you showing him stuff?

No, he’s messing about himself and finding out things that fascinate him. He’s got great taste in music.

Do you think he’s starting to realize that the family has a bit of a legacy that he can explore?

Oh, God, yeah. I think he is. There’s a musician in there. There really is. And he wants it. Peggy was telling me that I ought to be teaching him this, the tuning. He’ll go his own way. He’s fascinated by music. If he ever comes to a gig with me, I watch him. And he’s got a wonderful stillness about him. He really does. And if he’s got that, that’s precious. If he wants me to show him anything that I do, I will do it. I’m feeling that he’s waiting for the beast to come and bite. I’ve got high hopes for him. I started out with no idea, you know, and I just did it. See where it takes you. It’s a fabulous journey.

Folk singer Nick Hart stands in front of a grey garage door drinking a cup of tea from a china mug. He is promoting his album, 'Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs'

Nick Hart: “Your particular approach to accompanying traditional songs has inspired countless musicians over the years (myself included). How easily do you spot your influence in other peoples’ playing? Do you mind that we’re all ripping you off?”

[Laughs] No, I’m delighted! I think I found something, and what I really love is if people take the idea and run with it. That’s when it gets exciting. Also, you’ve got to start learning somewhere. So if people are learning things exactly… maybe I can help. Because there are certain technical tricks that make life easier.

Such as?

What I what I would say to anybody is, don’t play too much. Do an instrumental if you want to show off a bit, but [these traditional songs] are not really show-off stuff. It’s meant to intrigue.

In terms of your approach, then, although you have a very kind of idiosyncratic guitar style, it’s always the song that comes first rather than the guitar playing.

Oh, yeah. I cut back on things and made all sorts of discoveries on the way. I’m very fond of unison, so I love the idea that part of the guitar work is an occasional interjection, if you like, playing what’s being sung. It sort of underlines, hopefully, how clever the song is, how clever the tune is, because some of them are astonishing.

I’m sort of still working on ‘Creeping Jane’ [Roud 1012] because, for me, it’s very exciting to play. But I don’t want to get too excited because you can end up with a great tangle, which doesn’t help anybody.

You seem to be reducing and reducing and simplifying your guitar all the time. Isn’t there a danger that you end up with no guitar at all?

[Laughs] Yeah. But keeping it simple can be fascinating.

And do you spot your influence in other people? When you hear other people playing in your style, are you like, “I know where you got that from.”

I think I’ve noticed it a couple of times. And I just think, “That’s somebody who actually gets it.” Which is great. Somebody’s been listening closely.

Yesterday, I had a visit from a young guitarist called Henry Parker. He wasn’t in my tuning; he was in a sort of DADGAD, I think. But the guitar was ringing so much that it sort of started to interfere. And I sort of said, as nicely as I could, “I think you need to simplify that.” And he basically said, “I don’t know how.” I said, “Well, use your left hand more.” I was watching him do it and I thought, “You’re a clever bugger, but I enjoy the silences as well.”

What I forgot to say to him was to go off and steal from fiddle players. Watch their left hand. It’s fascinating because you nick stuff off their bowing technique as well. There’s all sorts of stuff you can take from fiddle players, but you’ve got to turn it upside down. You can’t always do it with one hand, you have to do it with some of the other hand, too. Get in there and see what you can imitate in their bowing hand, too. The person I always think of is Kevin Burke. Norma and I went to see him in Boston (I think), and he was playing in a small place. I was watching his left hand and it was just fantastic – the things he was getting out of the fiddle. It’s always in my mind when I think about my left hand; Kevin Burke is there in my mind.

Debbie Armour: “You are such a prolific artist and collaborator. Which of your albums or projects do you think gives the best overview of who you are as a musician? On which album do you get to do and say all the important stuff?”

The first album. I love it. I would do most of the stuff happily still, and a lot of it will be different because I’m older. I think you should follow your heart. I mean, it’s just a dumb thing to say but trust yourself.

That said, I made some terrifying mistakes. When I think about Shearwater, the album on which you’ll find ‘Famous Flower’, it’s also the album on which you’ll find the worst version of ‘William Taylor’ [Roud 158]. I think about it now and I think, “Why on earth did you let that go? You should have worked a bit harder on that one.”

I always stand by the first album, though. And a lot of the second one, because there was a bit of adventure creeping in there. I’d taken DADGAD and I’d given it a great kick up the bum and produced ‘Peggy and the Soldier’ [Roud 907], which I’ll stand by. But the first album I love because I’d had all that time. Five years of work had gone into that. Mind you, I think I’m singing far too fast.

Why do you think you were doing that? Were you nervous in the studio?

Well, there’s always more than one take. And as I did more than one take, it did tend to speed up a bit. But I did sing a lot faster in those days. The version of ‘High Germany’ [Roud 904] is really quite fast. I sing it now at a snail’s pace.

It gives it a different gravitas, doesn’t it?

Yeah. It’s an old fella singing it now. And I’m very happy with it these days. I love variation, melodic variation especially because I took to heart the fact that Cecil Sharp did not like recording. He did a bit of recording but his remark about it, which is really very revealing about his thinking, was that writing things down is much better because you always get a better sense of the tune. And the thing about a lot of those old-fashioned singers is that there isn’t a [single] tune. Every verse is often very slightly and sometimes quite phenomenally different. And if you want proof of that, go and listen to that wonderful version of, ‘The Banks of the Nile‘ [Roud 5386; early 20th, recorded by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, singer unknown, archived at Cecil Sharp House]. My cylinder recording of it breaks off and I made something up for the last verse, which I think I did a fairly good job of. I’m very happy with that. But it’s incredibly complex and it goes from a minor key into the major at one point. In fact, I think it’s in the last verse that he sings. It’s a fabulous piece of music.

Your first album is coming out again, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. They’re doing it on vinyl.

And how does that make you feel?

I’m proud of that first album because it reflects what I was thinking at the time. I was very excited at being in that Phillips Fontana recording studio, over by Marble Arch.

Was it your first time in a studio?

In a big studio, yes. My producer was a fellow called Terry Brown, who was the most long-suffering and good person, and he’d retired from music. He’d got out of gigging and gone into recording. And he was, at his time, the foremost bebop trumpeter. If I sang anything that was weird, he loved it. It was fascinating for him. And he was the most hands-off producer I ever had. He left you to get on with it. He produced everything up to and including Prince Heathen, which was when I was doing a bit of a tiny bit of multi-tracking, and I was ever so pleased with that.

I did ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ in one take. My memory of it is that it was the first time I’d ever sung it straight through.

Martin Carthy

Have you always enjoyed recording? Is it a process that you like?

Yeah, it’s really quite exciting. The fact that you can do what the hell you like… although it meant that, eventually, I made some colossal mistakes. But I also took fabulous risks. I mean, I did ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ in one take. My memory of it is that it was the first time I’d ever sung it straight through. When I hear it now, it seems to me that the tempo is absolutely solid all the way through. It doesn’t speed up or anything. Incredible.

Any other albums you remember well?

I’m very happy with Because It’s There, and I’m pretty happy with Skin and Bone because it reflects what Swarb and I were doing at the time. I’m very fond of bits of Signs Of Life, because I was playing with Eliza, and I love playing with Liza. Also, the opening line of that Bee Gees track [‘New York Mining Disaster, 1941’] we do, “In the event of something happening to me”. Woah! What a way to introduce a song!

Sorry, Debbie… that’s such a long list!

Stewart Lee: “In the late 80s, early 90s, when I started touring and doing gigs, I waited on the same wintery railway platform as you at Doncaster on a couple of occasions, but did not bother you as I would have looked like a mad fan. I saw an itinerant folksinger in the wild. You always had on a big coat and a guitar on your back, and looked to me the romantic ideal of the compact travelling artist, veteran and legend, which I found very inspiring. Of course, you were still in your 40s probably, younger than I am now! But I wonder if you had a sense of that being the life you dreamed of, and any tips for keeping on keeping on?”

Any tips for keeping on keeping on? Don’t forget the words and don’t get run over!

Martin Carthy

Number one, don’t even think about retiring! That is something I’m dealing with right now. My problem is that I do love a live audience. That is why I’ve always backed the folk clubs, because they might be little and scruffy (or slightly larger and scruffy), but it’s the real thing. It’s the real deal in front of real people. And you can’t go wrong. You’ve just got to engage them and lay stuff on them that they’d never thought of listening to before. And ‘Prince Heathen’ was one of those. I remember first standing up and singing ‘Prince Heathen’ and saying to people, “This isn’t a jolly chorus song, so I’m asking you not to join in the chorus – it’s trying to say something quite important.” I didn’t use those words, but that was where my head was at then.

Other than that, it’s a great life. It’s a huge privilege. All you’ve got to do is get [to the venue] and just do your job. Don’t forget the words and don’t get run over [Laughs]!

It’s a fabulous privilege. At the beginning of all that, I was living in London and then when [first wife] Dorothy and I moved out, we moved to Warminster, which meant I spent more time on other people’s spare beds or on their sofas.

And you still do, don’t you, amazingly? You’ll still quite happily be hosted by people when you gig.

I get put in hotels these days. OK, it’s certainly a change of life, but I much prefer to be hosted.

You like the chat?

Well, yeah, that was always a thing. But you were all on the same level. People trusted you to do your best. It’s where Billy Connolly came from, and Mike Harding.

So, the first part of Stewart’s question was, did you have a sense of that being the life you dreamed of?

It’s the life I’ve loved. I really did love that life.

Angeline Morrison sits with an autoharp on the beach, playing The Sorrow Songs

Angeline Morrison: “You’re one of the group of folk revivalists of the 1960s who are so deeply influential on our generation. Do you ever think about what it would be like if that generation of 60s folk musicians were falling in love with the old songs now in today’s world?”

Well, they are. That’s one of the nice things about it. The young people do like those old songs. It puzzles me, though, that I can’t change the mindset of the ones I look on as the younger singers. They look on me and my mates as the examples to follow. So a lot of them are not interested in who I think of as the old singers. OK, I’m an old singer now, but you know what I mean. People like Joseph Taylor, Sam Larner, Harry Cox. All those people. Frieda Palmer, Jeannie Robertson, Belle and Sheila Stewart. Sheila sang ‘The Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie’ [Roud 98], and she sang the pants off it. Her timing was exquisite.

When you were starting out, all your mates were into it. You were all obsessed with these songs, weren’t you? Presumably, you were showing each other what you’d found. Our generation can find all of this on the internet, but when you lot found a new song it must have been like finding gold.

Well, if somebody sang a song that you thought of as a new song, what the other musicians would then do would be to go and find another version of it. Those who had anything about them would go and find another version of it and swear that theirs was the original [laughs]. But when I found ‘Peggy and the Soldier’, I was absolutely blinded by it. I thought it was utterly wonderful. I rang Bert Lloyd up and said, “Do you know any extra verses?” And he sent me another four verses – maybe he made him up himself, I don’t know. He could have done. But I changed the tune. I found another tune that I loved. And those words seem to sit astride that melody that I picked out for it.

Back in the 60s, in the early days, when you were playing around Soho and the coffee bars and folk clubs, were there any other musicians that you thought had a particularly good ear for finding good songs?

Well, there were people like Tony Rose, but he would often do my version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ because he thought it was wonderful. And to begin with, I got very protective about my repertoire. Tony was doing my song! That was really daft of me. Later on, when we became mates, I was able to let go.

I love the idea that what we all did was spur each other on to go looking for more songs, other versions, because in a different version, there’d always be a couple of lines that would make you cross that you didn’t find them first! But that was the way it worked. We were all really excited by some of the stuff and irritated by what other people did.

Who were the standouts, though?

I always loved the Watersons because they were so very different. Other folk groups at that time always obeyed the Weavers’ rule: a group had to have a girl singer, had to have a banjo player, and a guitarist. That was the model.

The Watersons changed all that. To begin with, they had a banjo and a guitar, but very quickly it was dispensed with. And they sang in weird keys. They sang in keys that suited the girls. Mike had developed this massive range. He could go right from the dungeon right up to where the birds sing. He had a huge range, and he used it. The other singer was John Harrison, and he had a really fabulous bass voice.

‘Rap Her to Bank’ was one of the songs they used to do. It was from the Elliots of Berkeley. The Watersons did an astonishing version of that and I became responsible for that being on a record. Norma and I were married by that time and I was talking to [former Topic Records boss] Tony Engle and he said they were going to re-release the red album. I said, “The Watersons have a different version of that album. They’ve got a couple of extra tracks. One of those tracks is absolutely fabulous. And I could never understand why Topic took that track off.” Tony said, “Oh, I must have a copy of that. I’d better go and listen to it.” And he went and listened to it and he called me back and he said, “You’re right, it’s sensational. Why did they take it off?”

Goblin Band: “What do you think folk music could do to help us in this country now?”

It can give us some of the energy that Goblin Band have got, because they’re the ones who can re-energize English group singing and playing. They can play and they can sing and they’re fearless. That’s what’s so good about them. They did a version of one of the songs I think of as one of my songs. I grumbled to myself a little bit. “You changed it.” No, what they did was actually what I’m always droning on about: they ran with the idea. Because that’s what tradition is. Run with the idea. You never know what’s going to happen. What they did was better than what I did with ‘Willie’s Lady’ [Roud 220]. It’s slightly trimmed, but it’s absolutely brilliant. It tells the story. That’s all you’ve got to do.

They also did ‘Widdicombe Fair’ [Roud 137] when I saw them. They did the old war horses. They’ve messed with ‘Widdicombe Fair’ and it’s just this great, wonderful stomp. When I saw them singing, all I could think of was, “This is what happened in Ireland when Lankum started.” They’ve just taken stuff and shaken it, given it a good clip around the ear. When I saw Goblin Band singing recently, I just thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because you were busy looking somewhere else, you silly fool [laughs].

Thanks to Eliza Carthy, Martin Simpson, Alex Merry, Jim Moray, Jon Lewis and Jude Rodgers for their help in reaching out to some of the people involved in this interview. Martin Carthy and Jon Wilks will be on the road with Martin’s talking/singing tour between October and December.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Martin on the tour? Click here, fill in the form and we’ll see what we can do…