Friday, February 19, 2010

Olden Days (2)

Martin Carthy
Green Note, Camden Town
17 Feb

Last week, Martin Carthy on a stage with dry ice and synthesisers and lights and amps in front of an audience of a thousand. This week, Martin Carthy in a vegetarian cafe not much bigger than my Mum's front room, playing to an audience of fifty -- thirty-five of whom arrived in time to get seats, the rest perched on stools or standing around the bar. (Slightly cheeky, arguably, to charge money for tickets and then set things up so you only get a seat if you also buy dinner. Good cheesecake, though.)

Carthy comes onto the stage, or rather, onto the raised bit in the corner of the cafe, and without ado, launches into "Come listen  for a moment lads, and hear me tell my tale / across the seas from England I was condemned to sail..." I loved this song when Dylan turned it into a pop ballad; I love it when Mawkin: Causley do it as a big production number; but Carthy strips it right down to the simple melody and stark, harsh words so you can actually hear it being sung by a real poacher on a real convict ship. And then straight into Broom, Green Broom, which he points, out shows that dads and teenagers haven't changed much over the centuries. ("He had a son, his name it was John/And he stayed in his bed until noonday, noon / The father arose and to his son goes / And swore he would fire his room...")

He gives us a fair old sample of his vast repertoire -- he claims that he only needs to hear a song once to know it by heart -- in two generous sixty minute sets. He refrains from singing the dirty words to Cuckoo's Nest, but if we're paying attention during a perfectly timed, unaccompanied Tailor of Whitby, we can work out what the title means. (And doesn't it give you some kind of hope for the future of the human race that a cock joke can remain funny for two hundred years?)

He does a lot of the Famous Ones, of course. There's a poignant My Bonny Boy Is Young But He's Growing; a long, dramatic Prince Heathen, with many instrumental breaks. No female highwaymen, though, to my very mild disappointment.

There are a few minor departures from his very traditional brief. The second half starts, unannounced, with a dotty bit of half-sung, half-recited Victorian music hall whimsy ("don't go in them lions' cage tonight, mother"). He does the Imagined Village version of My Son John, in which the young man's legs are replaced with carbon fibre blades rather than crutches. The Three Jovial Welshmen ("Can someone tell me why that always gets a laugh?") mistake a haystack for Barbara Cartland -- which gives some indication as to how long he's been singing that particular version of the song. I'm guessing that the stanza about Crookback Richard's taxation policy is even older.

What I like best of all are the long, long narrative ballads. The boy in the forest who sends his friend to take a love message to married woman, resulting in him losing his head. (Completely new to me: Carthy says it's one of his six or seven favourite songs, and one can see why.) The witch who curses a woman so that she will get pregnant, but never give birth, and is caught out by one of those ruses that only work in fairy tales. And the final, daft encore about the farmer who bets his soul that he can find an animal that the Satan won't recognise.

Although he obviously knows which songs work as opening and closing numbers he has no set-list, and sometimes seems to genuinely pause and say "I think I'll, maybe I'll do this one first."

Louise said that Carthy, for all his fame and influence still seems to be saying "I'm just going to sing you a few songs I like -- I hope you like then too." I think it's the modesty of the true folk singer -- he knowns that the songs are the star: he's just a conduit for them.



Jody Macgregor said...

You're making me wish I liked folk music more, or at least knew more about it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

As is painfully clear, I don't know anything about it, except that I like it. (I could say complicated things about history and English identity, but I think what primarily appeals to me is that it has a: good words and b: nice tunes.)

I found BBC local radio a good place to start: try