Friday, March 16, 2012

Jewel in the Crown

Martin Carthy 
Kings Place London 
16 March


He comes out onto the stage; peers out into the audience; says "Hello!"; pauses to re-tune his guitar. And straight into "Come, listen to my story, lads, and hear me tell my tale, how OVER the seas from ENG-LAND, I was condemned to sail". And we're off on another mixture of long, long ballads, give away comic songs, and "The Fall of Paris". At one level, he's a showman, of course he is – the walking onto the stage at the opening of the second set and reciting a Victorian music hall monologue (this time "Me Mother Doesn't Known I'm On the Stage") has been honed over many decades of gigging, of finding out what works and what doesn't. He always opens with Jim Jones because he's found that Jim Jones is the perfect song to open on. But it's still the naturalness which floors me; that sense that he'd be singing these songs even if the audience hadn't turned up.

He does the one about the Blind Harper who stole the kings favourite horse, which is one of three he regularly claims as his favourite; he does Patrick Spens which he says has only recently come back into his repetoire. Everyone jokes about folk songs which go on for ever and ever; but in fact, songs like Sir Patrick really, really gain from being song in full. It takes 25 verses.  (Martin Simpson rattles through in a dozen or so.) Because it's a story, and leaving in all the verses makes it clear and easy to follow; we're in no doubt about why the King needs Patrick to set sail in such a hurry, nor why he has to come back in an equal rush.

He winds up with the best double-whammy you could hope for; the epic Prince Heathen and the silly Feathery Wife; both, in different ways, about love: the evil domineering love of the satanic nobleman for lady Margaret; the devoted love of the nagging wife who comes up with the ruse to free the farmer from his faustian bargain.

I spent some time in this forum earlier in the year trying to answer the question "What is a folk-song, anyway?" Carthy's Prince Heathen could stand as a test-case. It's Carthy who matched the words to the incongruously jolly tune; its also Carthy who adapted Child Ballad 104 (I looked it up) into modern English. 

The Child version has the refrain:

"O bonny may, winna ye greet now?"
"Ye heathenish dog, nae yet for you."

which Carthy freely turns into

"O lady will you weep for me? Lady tell me true"
"Ah, never yet ye heathen dog, and never shall for you!"

Sometimes he's fairly close to the original:

"A drink, a drink, frae Prince Heathen's hand,
Though it were frae yon cauld well strong!"
"O neer a drap, Prince Heathen," said one,
Till ye row up your bonny young son."


"A drink! A drink! The young girl cried
All from Prince Heathen's hand!"
"Oh never a drop Prince Heathen cried
Til you wrap up your son!" 

But sometimes, he's bringing his own imagination to the printed text:

He's taen her out upon the green,
Where she saw women never ane,
But only him and 's merry young men,
Till she brought hame a bonny young son.

Becomes the horribly brutal:

So he's laid her all on the green
And his merry men stood around
And how they laughed and how they mocked,
As she brought forth a son

But it's recognisably the same story; except, of course, that he's changed the ending: Carthy rightly feels that after the Princess has kidnapped lady Margaret, wiped out her entire family, raped her, and imprisoned her in a dungeon, its unacceptable for Anon to imply that, in the end, his heart was softened and they lived happily every after. Traditional song or new song? For all we know, the anonymous source who submitted the "traditional" version to Mr Child might have interpreted and earlier version just as freely.

A lot of Martin's identiy as a folk-singer continues to depend on the idea of source-singers: for every song reconstructed or re-invented out of a printed source, there is one that he got from an old recording on a wax cylinder. His My Bonny Boy is Young But He's Growing comes off a recording Vaughan Williams made of a pub landlord in 1907. He kisses his fingers to show how beautiful the long dead singer's voice was. (*)

"These songs are the real crown jewels" he says before Prince Heathen "And this is one of the jewels in the crown." His own acoustic guitar is "in hospital" but his guitar maker has leant him a beautiful instrument to use in the interim. At the end of the song, he allows the guitar to take the bow and acknowledge the applause.

(*) You can listen to it here, through the wonders of the internet. In places it sounds uncannily (even disturbingly) like Mr Carthy's version. 

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