Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chris Wood / Martin Carthy

Feb 9 Kings Place London

On Tuesday, Chris Wood had been nonchalantly crowned "best folksinger" and owner of the "best song" at the Radio 2 folk awards. ("Hollow Point" had made me cry all over again. "Folk music is like a raspberry pip in the back tooth of the establishment" he'd said.) Tonight, he was "curating" the first night of a series of talks and concerts about "the anonymous tradition", at the Kings Place art center in London. ("Think of it as like a festival, but for grown ups" he explained. I only managed to get to the first night, because the series was unreasonably in London and I work annoyingly in Bristol. So I missed my chance to be in the crowd singing Butter and Cheese and All on Folk-Song a Day.) Chris never fails to say that he regards "anon" as the greatest song-writer who ever lived.

First half of the evening was a panel discussion, also featuring Simon Armitage (a man who writes pomes) and Hugh Lupton, the story teller and lyricist who wrote the words of Chris's contemporary fairy-tale tear-jerker One in a Million. Hugh didn't say a great deal, which was a shame. The net of the discussion was cast, perhaps, a little too widely: Mr Armitage talked about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he has recently translated into Modern -- a poem by a single author, whose name happens to be lost to us; where Chris Wood and Martin Carthy were more interested in poems which don't really have authors, but which are the product of that nebulous thing called The Tradition. Chris said that occasionally, at sessions, he plays one of his own compositions without letting on that it is his, in the hope that other people will pass it on. "I've taken so much from the tradition" he said "I want to put a little back in" . That's about the only time I've heard him drifting towards the folk equivalent of luvviedom.

There was an opportunity for question from the floor, which, as is the way with these things, the audience interpreted as "could you say randomly whatever comes into your head for the next two and a half minutes." Chris said that he wouldn't quite regard his songs as "finished" until, presumably after he is dead, they start to circulate without his name attached to them. I asked from the floor how that could be possible: his songs are intensely personal: his wife, his children, his allotment. (@Sam: He really is married to a lady called Henrietta -- at any rate his second album is dedicated to someone of that name. She wasn't just brought in for the sake of a rhyme. Did Dylan ever really date anyone called Angelina?) He said that he thought that his song "No Honey Tongued Sonnet" which is, on the one hand, very specifically about English schools and particularly the daft and thankfully now obsolete 11 Plus examination, was actually more generally about being labelled as a failure and rising above it. He said he'd done a a song workshop with some sixth form kids, and many of them didn't know what "Hollow Point" was about. Six years is a long time: perhaps great injustices only get remembered in the forms of song?

In the second half, he and Martin took to the stage. Chris sang No Honey Tongued Sonnet and My Darlings Downsized, and part of Listening to the River, an absolutely extraordinary thing he composed for Radio2, in which he talked to members of the public who lived near the Medway and used their words to build up a sound portrait of the river: actually imitating the inflection of his informants voices on his fiddle, and then incorporating it into a melody. I think of him as an interpreter and writer of folk-songs: I sometimes forget that he's an absolutely first rate violinist. Martin sang Jim Jones, which on some days of the week is my favourite traditional folk song, and they sang Three Jovial Welshmen together. (Martin invariable introduces the song by saying "I'm going to do a song called Three Jovial Welshmen....why does that always get a laugh?" The Kings Place audience were far too respectful, and rather spoiled his punchline.)

At the beginning of the evening, Martin looked...very much like someone whose wife has been in intensive care for the last three months... but he seemed to uncurl and come to life to re-tell the story of how he was turned onto folk music by hearing a Norfolk fisherman at Ewan Mcoll's folk club singing a long ballad which appeared to obey no musical rules. The question of what makes Carthy such a uniquely special performer is one that's hard to answer. Gavin put it nicely in a review last year: he's not the greatest singer; his guitar playing can be awkward, but "some invisible magic sparks between them." Martin himself explained it poignantly and perfectly tonight. When he was a younger man, he was just singing the words and tunes. "But now" he said  "I believe them. I believe every word."

The most touching moment of the evening was Martin's warmly congratulating Chris after he's finished the set with an uncompromisingly nuanced meander through Lord Bateman. To steal a line from a review on Amazon: you can just see the torch of traditional English folk music being passed from the older man to the younger.


  1. He really is married to a lady called Henrietta -- at any rate his second album is dedicated to someone of that name. She wasn't just brought in for the sake of a rhyme.

    I daresay... but in the song, "Henrietta" is the one who "writes the letter" - not the wife who's downsized.

    With hindsight, I've found something to dislike in all three Chris Wood's songs that evening... but I've slowly come to the conclusion that I just found him personally irritating. You should probably ignore any specific criticisms I may have voiced.

    Martin Carthy has charisma when he plays, I think, but that may just be another way of saying "invisible magic sparks".

  2. No, I am pretty sure that it's about his wife, Henrietta, deciding to go semi-retired and spend more time on the allottment. Otherwise it wouldn't be a love-song, and he always introduces it as a love-song for miserable old gits, as opposed to young things who think they invented love, and can't say any more than "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"

    Have you heard any of his more overtly political material -- Spitfires, the Grand Correction?

    Carthy could certainly be said to have "charisma", but I think the point is that he "inhabits" the songs, tells each one as if its being told for the first time, as he says, believes in them.

  3. Fair enough - at the time, I said I found the "Henrietta/letter" rhyme grated so I thought you were talking about that. I don't doubt his sincerity - I just didn't like the results.

    I've not looked for more Chris Wood - I'm busy trying to decide if I like ritualz's last album - but I do agree that three songs at a gig isn't enough to form a proper impression. Still, I think Martin Carthy is higher up my list of people to try the next time I want some English folk.

    (Incidentally, I've been reading a book of cartoons from the NME. They're quite rock-ist, with various digs at the "acoustical guitar", but Martin Carthy gets an approving name-check.)

  4. I'm not sure I'd say that Carthy does particularly have charisma onstage. With film or tapes of Dylan onstage in his early Greenwich Village days, he affects a kind of unassuming nonchalence but is actually already quite skilled at holding the audience. Carthy, conversely, genuinely is unassuming and nonchalent. I think he really does just think about the songs.

    Only ever saw Chris Wood once, and thought he was good. But then I think of bad rhymes like I do bad jokes, they're a kind of artform in and of themselves...

  5. But then I think of bad rhymes like I do bad jokes, they're a kind of artform in and of themselves...

    It's a good point. Perhaps after seeing R A Lafferty rhyme "roses" with "apotheosis" and hearing C J Cherryh find a rhyme for "alien gestalt" I'm just not easily impressed.

    But I really do think my irritation came first and the criticisms attached themselves to it.

  6. "But I really do think my irritation came first and the criticisms attached themselves to it."

    I know what you mean...

  7. BTW: If we are looking for chinks in Wood's lyrical armour (and this is from the point of view, you understand, of one who thinks the question isn't so much "is he as good as Dylan" but "is he as good as Chaucer") I don't think we ought to be foccussing on rhymes. His main flaws are trite sentimentality, particularly to round of songs, and an odd liking for opening them with "tags" and "jingles". (Honey Tongued Sonnet: "All the kings horses and all the kings men / I'm sorry but they haven't a clue" Turtle Soup: "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, such a small ship neath the tropical sun" Hollow Point: "Awake arise, you drousy sleeper, awake arise it's almost day...")

  8. P.S I should also note that the line is "Henrietta as just had the good sense / To write them a letter in which their advised..." Which is nowhere near as trite as "Henrietta is a writing a letter" would have been. I prefer him in slow-burn miserablist mood, as (Stay for the last line, but you will probably get there before he does.)

  9. HappydancingfeetTuesday, 28 May, 2013

    'Henrietta' makes me cry every time I hear it. Who cares whether it's a pure folk song? Or how good the rhymes are? 'Feeling' and 'technique' are always in opposition in any art -- and most blokes are scared of raw emotion, which is why they often ennoble 'technique'. But I agree with Margaret Atwood that there is such a thing as an 'accurate emotion'. And Chris Wood isn't afraid to go hunting for it, yay!