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Martin Carthy – Marthy Carthy (debut album reissued), a review

What do you even say about this album? How can you realistically review an album that stands as one of the very cornerstones of modern folk music? What more is there to say?

Release Date
23 February 2024
Martin Carthy - Martin Carthy (debut album reissued)
Martin Carthy's 1965 debut, foundational in English folk, has been re-issued by Topic Records. With its timeless appeal and Carthy's masterful storytelling, the album showcases short, impactful songs that remain standards in folk music. Featuring both solo and collaborations with Dave Swarbrick, Carthy's influence on folk and popular music is undeniable, making this an enduring classic some 60 years on.

For most of us, Martin Carthy’s 1965 debut is foundational. Originally released on Fontana and used, by many, as a “how-to” guide when getting into English folk music it is quite remarkable how well it has stood the test of time. Topic Records have just re-issued it on vinyl as part of their Topic Treasures series and, if you haven’t plucked it from your shelves in a while, this feels like a great excuse for another listen. 

There are fourteen tracks on Martin Carthy, many of them clock in at less than three minutes and it is this sense of purpose that shines, like an undimmed flare. They are the most perfect short stories, set in the most perfect way, told by the most perfect voice. Carthy is as honest, straightforward and clear as the most careful novelist. If Hemmingway and Carver are spare and crystalline, so too is Carthy. ‘High Germany’ [Roud 904] is a Broadside from around 1780, a conversation between lovers with war looming. Carthy allows a sensitivity, an empathy for both parties, expressing desire and heartbreak over a few, scant minutes. It’s a masterclass in folk singing, in storytelling, in precision and concision. A simple guitar phrase see-saws as Carthy unfolds his tale, embellishing the pages but never obscuring the text.  

What must it have been like to listen to this man, in 1965, eschewing Americanisms and revelling in Englishness?

He does this over and over again. ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ [Roud 31; Laws O35] has a palpable sadness to it, enhanced by the merest flicker of an accent – a further stamp of authenticity. What must it have been like to listen to this man, in 1965, eschewing Americanisms and revelling in Englishness? Carthy is remarkable, giving a feminine point of view with not a single hint of macho embarrassment. He knows the best stories and how best to tell them. On Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s ‘Springhill Mine Disaster’, he makes you long for a newspaper report with this much integrity, this much truth. His guitar keeps everything neat and tidy, like the binding of a book. It is beautiful, dark and harrowing. 

Without his guitar, Martin Carthy is still devastating. ‘Ye Mariners All’ [Roud 1191] is very short and entirely acapella, a flawless song. If you’re going to sing unaccompanied then you’ve got to be sure that your voice is up to it. Carthy’s is, and more. It has strength and depth, an absolute certainty and conviction. He says, of this album, that, “there are some things on it I think I couldn’t have done better,” and, surely, it’s on songs like this that that sense is best realised; there’s such a contrast between the drunkenness of the words and the world-weary sadness of the delivery. 

‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ [Roud 239; Laws N13) is, again, sung acapella, but this time there’s a twinkle in Carthy’s eye. The old sailor’s dream of a female crew member dressed as a boy, and the attendant complications, is delivered with a disarming cheekiness, a glimmer of wit. At every turn, Carthy knows how to capture his audience and hold them entranced. The cast of characters in ‘The Barley & The Rye’ [Roud 23268] are as vivid as Shakespeare’s, and Carthy draws them with the finest of inks. 

So many of the songs on Martin Carthy have become standards of the folk scene but it is, perhaps, his relationship with Dave Swarbrick that has made a lasting impression on the world that Carthy has given his life to. ‘Sovay’ [Roud 7; Laws N21] sees the two of them effortlessly twinned, Swarbrick’s fiddle and Carthy’s sophisticated guitar playing going hand-in-hand, as naturally as can be. It is, at once, timeless and utterly mind-blowing. 

Several of the duo arrangements (‘Lovely Joan’, ‘And A Begging I Will Go’, ‘Broomfield Hill’) were put together in the studio. Of these, Carthy says, “we used to rehearse on stage, in front of the audience,” so it is all the more remarkable just how great they are. ‘Lovely Joan’ [Roud 592] (one of the few songs that Carthy felt he could improve upon, and did 14 years later on Because It’s There) is upbeat and jaunty, arranged by Swarb for guitar and mandolin, while ‘And a Begging I Will Go’ [Roud 286] is filled with romanticism of the open road. The arrangement is, simply, glorious with the mandolin effortlessly conjuring those carefree journeys. Carthy and Swarbrick would go on to more complicated things, more experimental tunings, and would send folk music in different directions but, my god, they’re brilliant here. 

The stories of how Carthy influenced Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are written deep in the folklore of popular music, so it is at ‘Scarborough Fair’ [Roud 12; Child 2] that people will look. Perhaps it would be easy to imagine that there’s something a little hackneyed about the song but those thoughts are dispelled within seconds. It is so blindingly obvious why Simon wanted it. The arrangement is raindrop-simple, the voice wonderfully strong, beautifully pure. ‘Scarborough Fair’ is the very definition of an English folk song, Carthy’s version the definitive one.

In these days of “Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!”, too many albums seem to be stamped with a branding that calls them “classic” when they are, in truth, nothing of the sort. Martin Carthy is a classic – a wildly important album filled with wonderful versions of extraordinary songs. It is easy to see why Carthy is “The Daddy“. There is nothing more to say.

Martin Carthy, re-released on Topic Records, is out now. Click here to order.