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Features / Leading English folkie isles-bound… at last!

It's been a long time coming, but 75 year old English folk royalty Martin Carthy will play his first Shetland date next week.

MARTIN Carthy, one of the English folk scene’s most loved and innovative musicians, was urged by fiddler Aly Bain back in the 1970s to visit Shetland before the oil boom altered the face of the islands forever. 

He never managed to take up that suggestion but – coinciding with a slump in the North Sea industry some 40 years on – next week he’ll at long last put that right by making the trip north for a show at the Lerwick Legion.

“When I first met Aly Bain – that was back in the sixties – and then when the oil boom hit he kept saying ‘you have to go up to Shetland, you have to go up to Shetland, before it all changes’, and I never did,” he told Shetland News this week.

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon from the home in Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast he has shared since 1975 with another great of the folk scene, his wife Norma Waterson, Carthy was an absolute delight of an interviewee.

The warm, witty and engaging 75 year old touched on subjects ranging from his encounters with the up-and-coming Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to the great tradition of folk clubs and a failed attempt at tactical voting to keep the dastardly Tories out of his home constituency (he went through with it, Norma “chickened out” and the Tories won!) during a half-hour conversation.

It might have taken half a century of performing to get here, but Carthy seems genuinely thrilled to be heading to Shetland.

“I got the chance to go up to the festival one time, and I couldn’t go because I was doing something with a band,” he recalled.

“I know there’s wonderful musicians up there. I knew that it was a different way of [fiddle] playing from anywhere else, and that was obvious from meeting Aly, because he had a way of playing a completely different repertoire of tunes – beautiful to hear.”

His own trusted fiddle-playing collaborator and friend Dave Swarbrick passed away just a few weeks ago. While feeling the loss, he is thankful Swarbrick squeezed so much into the last 12 years following a lung transplant.

Carthy is a formidable guitarist with the highest of pedigrees, cited as an influence by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.

“He decided that his second chance was going to mean something to him, and to anybody else who was interested. He really did knuckle down and just played – better and better and better. It was a privilege to be around.

“I’m not sad because he wasn’t sad, because he knew it was coming, and everybody close to him knew that it was coming. I’m gonna miss playing with the old bugger, that’s for certain.”

Carthy spoke to Swarbrick’s wife who told him it had been “quite an extraordinary death – wonderful, sublime” and he insisted on no funeral – so “we’re going to have a party at some point to celebrate him” instead.

Next week’s solo set will feature songs telling great stories, some of which are “very, very dark and some that are very naughty – not necessarily in a sexual way, just about people being naughty”.

An avid collector of songs, often gritty ballads with true substance, he will perform mostly traditional English material along with one or two Scottish numbers that he has “Anglicised like hell”.

His readings of certain songs has evolved over the years to the extent he can be “quite startled at the way in which the language was changed” since they were recorded.

“The way I play has changed enormously. If I suddenly decide to do a song I haven’t done for 30 years I have great difficulty playing it.

“If you’re making it up as you go along, as I do with guitar playing – I play in a very silly tuning and I’ve been working with that for coming up for 40 years – if that’s happening then I realise how much of my way of playing has changed.”

On the London folk club scene in the 1960s, while they were “extraordinary performers”, he remembers Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as “just a couple of blokes”.

Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was a folkie and “whenever one of his charges came to the country he’d just take them round the London folk clubs”.

Carthy was in a group who ran the King & Queen club not far from Soho, and he recalls Dylan walking in and playing three songs that “absolutely blew the place apart”. Dylan later cited Carthy as an influence.

Amusingly, when Paul Simon called another folk club owner in the mid-60s offering himself as a resident singer for the princely sum of £5 a week, the owner got in touch with Carthy.

“This guy Dave, I can never remember his surname, said has anybody heard of this bloke Paul Simon, what do you think? I, and a couple of others, said he’s worth a punt. If he’s rubbish you can always sack him!”

Simon then famously lifted Carthy’s arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’, without permission, and turned it into a Simon and Garfunkel hit. The argument was only resolved when Simon invited Carthy to sing the song with him at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2000.

The folk scene is much changed, of course, since those days. While not criticising today’s environment, he admits being bemused by career-orientated artists who have “business plans and stuff”.

“People ask me about my career, and I always say I haven’t got one. I just wanted to go round the clubs and sing a lot. I’ve been doing that for 50 years and having a great time.

“It’s completely foreign. Some of them are bloody good performers, but it’s different. That folk club circuit that was around in the 60s and 70s, you could honestly say had no right to exist at all because it was completely anarchic and relied on goodwill.”

Some of his favourites among a “startling number of fabulous performers” on today’s scene include Emily Portman, Stephanie Hladowski and fiddler Jacqui Oates.

He is pleased that more women, his hugely talented and successful daughter Eliza Carthy included, continuing to ply their trade on the traditional scene after having families, something that notably did not happen when he was younger.

“When we all started there were lots of blokes and quite a few women, and then it seemed that the women married the blokes and suddenly it was just the women. Now the women are sticking at it.”

Carthy will be up in Scotland when the EU referendum takes place, and he’s already got his postal vote in for Remain. Like many on the left, he finds today’s political climate “terrifying” and is “startled about how Labour have been so reluctant to come forward”.

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Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021