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Martin Carthy plays on stage.

On tour with Martin Carthy: Part 1

Martin Carthy tours the UK this autumn in a rare 'music and conversation' show covering the great man's life. Jon Wilks discusses preparing for a tour with his musical hero.

Tuesday, 10am, Sidmouth Folk Festival. Martin Carthy’s number flashes up on my phone screen. This experience doesn’t get old.

I first heard Martin Carthy when I was a teenager, probably on a record found in my stepdad’s vinyl collection. I’m guessing it was around 1995, so I’m a relative newcomer to the great man’s work. It was ‘High Germany’ that grabbed me, quickly followed by ‘Siege of Delhi’, a tune I remain obsessed with to this day. I remember being perplexed by how his righthand thumb seemed to be a whole rhythm section, doggedly working the bass strings while his forefingers danced a kind of jig around the upper registers. The best I could manage was a Beatle-esque strum. This was a whole other world. This needed studying.

I spent most of my time at the University of Wales, Bangor, doing just that. I was meant to be reading English literature; I’d have scored a first-class degree in the fingerwork of Carthy, Jansch, Simpson and Drake. I so badly wanted to have been born in time for the 60s, it frequently hurt. I remember developing a short-lived herbal interest and attending weekly parties in someone’s basement where we all pretended it was Les Cousins, Greek Street, 1968, instead of Glanrafon Hill, Bangor, 1998. The nearest I got was the Greek Taverner, a stone’s throw from my student digs, where I remember playing Paul Simon songs for a pint, a packet of Marlborough, and a plate of boiled potatoes.

Time passes far more quickly than Bob Dylan once suggested. Scroll forward to July, 2023, and I’m sitting in Martin Carthy’s living room, up in Yorkshire. We’re talking through the Remember Me to One Who Lives There tour, due to start in October, but with a pre-tour Sidmouth performance to kick things off. Martin is taking me through his memories, Eliza is making tea, and I’m just about managing to convince myself that this isn’t some overpowering daydream. This man isn’t just storied, he’s made of stories, whether they’re from a life lived in the service of traditional folk song, or the songs themselves. With a glint in his eye, he’ll take you back to the winter of 62/63, where we find him tempting Bob Dylan into messing around with a samurai sword in a London flat; to the mid-60s, sat in a hotel room chatting with John and Paul (surnames not required); to the early 2000s, as Paul Simon invites Martin onstage in Hammersmith to perform ‘Scarborough Fair’ and reignite an old friendship. Equally, he’ll sit and recite 20-plus verses of ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’, as though he was reporting a dreadful scene unfolding in front of him.

This man isn’t just storied, he’s made of stories

My role is to ask the questions and keep the conversation on track. After all, how do you fit 63 years of professional musicianship into just under two hours and still have room for a few songs? I’ve realised, too, that I’m here to try and keep these tales spry. During a lull in our preparations, I pick up a guitar and play the intro to Martin’s 1972 recording of ‘Georgie’, a song he has since reworked into something equally as beautiful but completely different. Martin’s ears prick up and a smile creeps across his face. It’s as if he’s just bumped into an old friend. “My word,” he says, “that’s not bad, that, is it?” I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself until he points out that I’ve got the fingerpicking ornamentation in the wrong place and proceeds to instruct me. It occurs to me that moments like this might be a delight for the audience to see, time willing. I wonder if there are other “old friends” I can surprise him with.

In truth, the more we discuss the tour, the more we realise that the impromptu nature of the conversation, and the way in which songs from his vast repertoire keep jumping out of the woodwork, will be the fairy dust. Because I’ve spent years interviewing people and having to plan out article structures, I make an initial attempt at putting a plan together. I return from Yorkshire with pages and pages of notes and I try to group them into conversational buckets. I have slightly worried conversations with Martin’s agent about how we’re going to fit it all into a normal two-hour show. I begin gnawing at my nails – never a good idea for a fingerpicking guitarist – and I fret as the first performance, at Sidmouth Folk Festival, edges closer.

Hi Jon. It’s Martin. I’m at a loose end.

“Hi Jon,” the voice at the other end of the line says. “It’s Martin. I’m at a loose end.” It being Tuesday morning, 10am, means that we have approximately one day left to get the show in order before we take it onstage at The Ham. In truth, I’m still hoping that the structure for this thing is going to fall from the sky into my lap, but sitting around waiting for it isn’t going to help so I suggest that we meet in Blackmore Gardens where my friend, Ellie Gowers, is helping out at the Hobgoblin Music stand. “They’ve got a few guitars. Maybe they’ll let us have a strum.”

We get there around midday. You don’t traverse Sidmouth quickly when you’ve got Martin Carthy in tow. Everyone wants to talk to him, and he’s up for talking to everyone. On two separate occasions, well-dressed gentlemen remove their pheasant-feathered hats in order to thank him for all the joy he has brought them. “Don’t thank me,” he shrugs, shaking their hands warmly. “I’ve had a marvellous time”.

Martin Carthy and well-known Sidmouth well-wisher

The stories never let up, although by now I’m comfortable enough hanging around with him that I feel I can share some stories of my own. We talk about our upbringings, about formative musical experiences. I recall seeing Blur at Aston Villa Leisure Centre in 1995, something you might not expect him to react to, but he responds by telling me of his great admiration for Graham Coxon and how much he digs his new band, The Waeve. He lavishes great praise on Goblin Band, a group of young trad obsessives that mesmerised him during a recent gig at Moth Club, a hip London venue making a name for itself in the folk world. “For years we’ve been looking for an English version of Lankum,” he enthuses. “I think we’ve found one.”

At Hobgoblin, we locate two small chairs and Ellie recommends a couple of guitars. Not for the first time, I ask him about guitar tunings. He recalls spending a whole night in the 1970s wrestling with his six-string until he’d come up with something that suited his needs. These days he plays in CGCDGA (standard guitar tuning is EADGBE), and he’s about the only one who does. As much as he says he’d like others to try it out, I suspect they don’t out of deference. The second you put your guitar into CGCDGA, there’s only one person you’re copying. I reckon he’s probably quite pleased about that.

He didn’t start off playing his guitar in these weird tunings though, and I ask him about his first album, largely recorded in variants of standard tuning. And that’s when the magic happens again. He recalls slapping a capo on the 5th fret and launching into ‘High Germany’, so I take my chance and do just that. For a couple of timeless moments, I strum the song I first heard him play, some 28 years before, and he sings along quietly. People approach, wondering if that’s actually Martin Carthy singing at a guitar stall, shaking their heads as though emerging from a reverie and quickly walking on. Meanwhile, my teenage self and I are in seventh heaven.

I don’t know where this generation gets its ideas from. Incredible.

Martin Carthy

That afternoon, we go and see the Eliza Carthy Trio who pretty much blow the bloody doors off. We arrive late and I’ve forgotten my glasses, so we try and squeeze into seats on the fourth or fifth row. It’s not the best idea I’ve ever had; everyone sees him arrive and everyone knows where he is. Every 10 seconds or so, someone turns around to see how he’s responding. He seems oblivious, though, focused entirely on his daughter’s barnstorming performance. “It’s the sheer invention,” he tells me afterwards, blowing his cheeks out as though he can’t quite believe what he’s seen. “Swarb and I, we were good, but I don’t know where this generation gets its ideas from. Incredible.”

Before we depart, I suggest that we meet backstage at 10am the following morning. Soundcheck is at around 11:15am and we’re due to begin the performance – whatever that may be – at midday. We’ll have time to agree on some final notes before we take to the stage. It doesn’t quite happen like that. Accosted by well-wishers as he tries to make our appointment, Martin finds himself delayed. By the time his soundcheck is over, there are about five minutes left before the lights go down. I show him a page of thought bubbles – ‘Sam Larner’, ‘Bob Dylan’, ‘what’s it like to be Martin Carthy at an Eliza Carthy concert’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ – and he laughs and nods his head. “It’s great to be working with someone so organised.”

Jon Wilks and Martin Carthy onstage at Sidmouth Folk Festival. Photo credit: Kyle Baker

I go on first. My introduction is entirely improvised – might as well start as we mean to go on. The audience responds warmly, laughing as Martin sneaks onstage behind me, mid-intro, as though he’s about to play a trick on an old friend. I open my notes and he dives straight into the first thought bubble. There’s just so much to talk about.

Martin Carthy and Jon Wilks are on tour from October to December. For more information, head to the official tour page. Scroll down for tour dates.

Martin Carthy & Jon Wilks on tour