There’s Always A Story: Martin Carthy’s Favourite Music

Martin Carthy
Martin Carthy

Martin Carthy speaks to Patrick Clarke about his 13 favourite records, his love for the new wave of traditional musicians, encounters with Bob Dylan and The Beatles and more

By Patrick Clarke

Speaking to Martin Carthy about his favourite 13 records is a delight. Having “had his head in his collection all day,” as his daughter Eliza who helped facilitate the interview describes it to tQ, he speaks about music with a giddy enthusiasm that betrays his 82 years. Though he’s one of the most influential and important figures in the history of British traditional music, there’s such a sense of wonderment to his tone – as well as a gleeful propensity for expletives – when he talks about other musicians that he might easily be mistaken simply for a fan.

He speaks this way about his forerunners in earlier folk movements, teenage inspirations like Lonnie Donegan, contemporaries like Bob Dylan, less direct inspirations from jazz, pop and soul music, and most pleasingly of all about the latest breed of young folk musicians. Recently, he says, was thrilled by a performance by London newcomers Goblin Band, whose approach to traditional music is markedly left field. “They move stuff around,” he beams. “They go back to versions that we were too snotty to touch and they turn them into stomps. They did one of the songs that I consider to be one of ‘my’ songs, ‘Willie’s Lady’, and I thought it was fucking brilliant. I was knocked out.”

Heartening though it is, it’s an outlook that for Carthy requires constant vigilance. His knee jerk reaction to Goblin Band’s approach was one of dismissal, “but then I just said to myself, fucking stop it! You’re always droning on about how people should run with an idea and they’re running with one of yours. They’ve changed it and it’s bloody good! I even thought of copying it myself.”

For now, however, it’s the past that’s Carthy’s chief concern, as he continues a tour with Jon Wilks, the musician, journalist and editor of the website, that blends tales from his storied life and career with musical interludes. “It’s huge fun, because Jon is both a very good musician and a very good guitar player, but he also has the mindset of a journalist, so he’s good at keeping control of where we go and what we talk about,” says Carthy, who’s also enjoying touring again. “In the last few years, the problem was that nobody would book me! I’d warm up like mad, practice like mad, play a show, but then have to wait another three weeks for a gig! With this tour with Jon, I feel like I’ve started to actually get a voice back, which is really, really gratifying.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around,” he continues, “but if I can keep singing I might even get to 100. I’ve been excited by music for 63 years or something, and it never gets boring. It’s music, for Christ’s sake! You’re always going to find something you’ve been singing forever that’s going to jump up behind you and bite you on the bum and make you think ‘How come I missed that?’ You weren’t old enough, that’s why. There’s always a fabulous story, and a hidden corner somewhere.”


Martin Carthy speaks to Patrick Clarke about his 13 favourite records, his love for the new wave of traditional musicians, encounters with Bob Dylan and The Beatles and more.

Eddie Butcher – I Once Was A Daysman

He’s an Ulster singer, and it’s just lovely stuff. He was a fairly old man but he could really sing. The first track is, I think, ‘Heather Down The Moor’, which is a corking little song. I came across him first on a recording of songs from Northern Ireland, because of a fellow called Peter Bellamy who was a hungry bugger. Anything that was new and that he liked, he’d pounce on it and he’d sing it around the clubs. Several years later I sang a version of it with Waterson:Carthy. It was in the 1990s at some point. We did a nice version. I used to sing it at my solo gigs too. The song would just take you off somewhere, it had this beautiful melody.

Joseph Spence – Happy All The Time

Any of his tracks are these absolutely beautiful things. He’s just a completely, utterly wonderful guitar player. It was a friend of mine called Jody Stecher who’s a wonderful musician and the world’s biggest Joseph Spence fan, who went to visit him. He had a guitar with him and its tuning is perfect, but when Joseph Spence tried to play it he said, ‘Do you mind if I tune it?’ He tuned the guitar to what he had always heard as being perfectly in tune, started to play, and the music was just gorgeous. I never saw or met Joseph Spence, but I love his playing. I love the freedom of it, and the particular swing that it had. I’m not going to pretend I could ever play a Bahaman swing like that. Just a wonderful player with fabulous imagination.

Arizona Drames – 1926-1928: Barrel House Piano With Sanctified Singing

This is a great album that was on a label called Herwin, somewhere out in the States. These are recordings that were made between 1926 and 1928. It’s wonderful if you can ever get your hands on it, she sings ‘In That Day’, ‘John Said He Saw A Number’, ‘Bye And Bye We’re Going To See The King’, ‘I Shall Wear A Crown’… She’s a sensational singer, and a very two-fisted player on the piano.

Is music from the 1920s of particular interest to you?

Well that’s when Mississippi John Hurt was making records, which would have been prized possessions for me if I’d ever got my hands on one of them. One of those American nerds, during the early 1960s, thought ‘Maybe I should go and try and find him’. I can’t remember the name of the township, but there was somewhere [Hurt] had talked about having lived, so the lad thought ‘I’ll just stop there and ask some questions’. He went up to a bloke and said, ‘Do you know a man called Mississipi John Hurt?’ ‘Oh sure, he lives down the road, three houses along.’ He’d not moved since 1931! When he got there, Mississippi John Hurt didn’t even have a guitar, but he said that even though he hadn’t played for years, he was still dazzlingly wonderful. [ . . . ]

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