[portions of this article were originally published in The Georgia Straight, 2000]
One evening in London in the early '60s a budding and little-known American singer-songwriter walked into the King and Queen pub near Goodge Street, where the weekly folk club was in session. There he heard a young Englishman by the name of Martin Carthy, accompanying himself on guitar, perform an arrangement of the traditional ballad "Lord Franklin" (about an ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage).
The visitor in question was Bob Dylan, on his first trip to Britain. Within a few months that tune reemerged with new lyrics as "Bob Dylan's Dream" on his second album Freewheelin' (1963). Dylan and Carthy became friends. Carthy was duly mentioned in Freewheelin's sleeve notes, and another of the traditional pieces he sang, "Scarborough Fair", served as the template for one of Dylan's most celebrated compositions "Girl from the North Country".
"Bob wasn't doing any gigs at all on that first visit," recalls Carthy. "He'd come over to be in a TV drama called Madhouse on Castle Street, as it happens. I remember him coming to me one time, saying 'I've got something I want you to hear', and he started playing this new song of his. When he got to the line she once was a true love of mine, and played a figure on guitar which was pretty much what I used to do, he burst out laughing and said: 'I can't do this!' He never played it again for me."
A couple of years afterwards Paul Simon arrived in London, and hung out for some months on the folk scene there. He was similarly impressed on hearing Carthy's arrangement of "Scarborough Fair", and got him to write everything down - then proceeded to copyright it. Simon subsequently used the song as part of the score for the movie The Graduate, which launched his career into the musical stratosphere. A little-known footnote to pop history is that Carthy later sued Simon over this rip-off, and won.
"About 25 years later I read an interview in which he talked about his time in London, and the musicians he'd met and what he'd learned from them - people like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, and me," says Carthy. "I remember thinking: 'All right; a bit late Paul, but better late than never'. It wasn't my song. But I felt offended because he'd taken what I did and not given any credit."
It would be hard to overestimate the contribution, often invisible, that Martin Carthy has made to the folk, pop, and even rock scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, in the course of 40 years, he has never been tempted by the lure of massive commercial success to deviate from the course he set himself from the start - to give the songs of the people back to the people, using the most effective and honest means at his disposal.
By constantly maintaining his focus, Carthy is one of those rare artists who doesn't put out anything but great albums nor deliver anything but compelling performances. Not that he hasn't stretched, and even moved beyond, what would conventionally be deemed the boundaries of English folk tradition: his latest album, Signs of Life (1998) finds him singing Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" (the first song he recalls learning to play), the Bee Gees "New York Mine Disaster 1941", and Dylan's superb "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll".
There are no such boundaries for Carthy, and there never have been. It may seem odd now, but when he started accompanying English folk songs on guitar, in the late '50s, the instrument was still considered something of a foreign import and Carthy was seen as an iconoclast. He evolved his own distinctive, and much copied, rhythmic fingerpicking style - adapting American banjo techniques and tunings to suit English traditional tunes.
Carthy - with Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and (a little later) Martin Simpson - was part of a generation of English guitarists who changed the face of folk. "I think that most of the really innovative acoustic guitarists in the '60s came from the British Isles. By and large I don't think the Americans had really interesting players until you put a slide into their hands, and got people like Ry Cooder and David Lindley."
In the later '60s Carthy formed a highly influential duo with ace fiddler Dave Swarbrick which lasted for several years (and was rekindled 20 years later), and in the early '70s he experimented with electric guitar in the seminal folk-rock groups Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band. During that period Carthy married singer Norma Waterson, and joined the traditional and unaccompanied group she had put together with her brother Mike and late sister Lal, the Watersons.
1983 marked the formation of what is regarded by many as the quintessential English band, Brass Monkey, which featured Carthy playing alongside squeezebox maestro John Kirkpatrick, trumpetist Howard Evans, and multi-instrumentalist Martin Brinsford. And in the mid-'90s the trio of Waterson:Carthy saw Norma and Martin joined on stage and in the studio by their daughter, singer and fiddler Eliza, spearheading yet another new phase of the English folksong revival.
Throughout these developments Carthy has maintained his career as a solo artist. When I was a student I heard him play live for the first time - at my local folk club in Lewes, Sussex - and was knocked sideways by the sheer intensity and conviction of his performance of the big traditional ballads.
"If you do them right these songs sing themselves," explains Carthy. "I regard my job as something like a medium. I'm not referring to anything resembling a mystical experience, though it is mysterious. I always talk about this third animal that appears between the audience and the performer, which is more than the sum of the two. Almost all the longer songs are able to generate that. It's their emotional core, the amount of action in them, and - for me anyway - the degree of tension they create."
In several cases Carthy has taken the surviving parts of fragmented ballads and reconstructed them, filling in any gaps with his own writing. A fine instance of such work is "The Famous Flower of Serving Men", a riveting tale of love, murder, mystery, and vengeance. "The first five verses are traditional, and they set me alight," says Carthy. "I cobbled together, or made up, most of the other 27 verses. It's a case of individual creativity operating within the traditional mould. You cannot say 'words and music Martin Carthy' - it is, and must remain, 'trad. arranged'. I think it's actually immoral to claim songs you've reworked as being your own. It's public domain; it does belong to the people."
Carthy sees folk songs as "works in progress", evolving over time. "There's hardly anything in the tradition that you can call a perfected song. The only one I can think of straight away is "Caledonia" [which is sung by Norma on 1994's Waterson:Carthy album]. Some people would say that's not traditional because we know the author, but for me it's not so cut and dried. The man who wrote it was Amby Thomas from Cape Breton. When you really look at the song in detail you understand that to change anything would be to spoil it."
"The detail in Caledonia is immense," Carthy points out. "There's a couple of lines in there that I regard as the most exquisite I've ever heard. When he says: 'I'd put my foot on the deepest ocean/as far from land as once [Carthy stresses the word] I could be/a-sailing over the deepest water/a woman's love would never trouble me.' That's an astonishing thought. I've heard people sing 'bother me'. But it's not, it's 'trouble me'. This is a Calvinist Scot, and he's young, and he's troubled by meeting this woman. It's a wonderful moment in the song."
Sometimes Carthy writes new verses to give them extra bite and relevance. "And a-begging I will go" is a great song (probably dating from Shakespeare's time) that extols the life of a vagabond. It appeared on Carthy's eponymous first album in 1965, and was given a thorough revision by him more than 20 years later to reflect the harsh realities of Margaret Thatcher's Britain, with lines such as: "I am a Victorian value, I'm enterprise poverty/Completely invisible to the state and a joy to Mrs T".
Altering and adapting songs in order to make them more appropriate to changing times and socio-economic situations has always been a part of the tradition itself. "But now we're beset by the heritage industry," Carthy warns. "It's very tempting. Governments love it. They'll sell you your heritage back, as if the country is a gigantic theme park. We just have to resist that."
The 59-year-old musician is delighted to see a new generation of performers - led, among others, by Eliza - adding their contemporary stamp to the old songs and tunes. "English traditional music is infinitely adaptable and malleable - that's its huge strength," he stresses. "You can do anything with it. Purists who act as if it's made of glass are doing the tradition no favours whatsoever. It's not made of glass it's made of people."
"My basic belief is that there's nothing you can do to harm a song except not sing it, to harm a tune except not play it, and to harm a dance except not dance it," he continues. "If you leave them in the books then you've said goodbye to them as vibrant, living things. I don't like the idea of cutting off traditional song from everything else. It has to be part of the general 'body musical' otherwise it's meaningless."
Carthy has always been vociferous in his defense of folk as a genre that speaks directly to modern society and experience. "You have to believe in this music, knowing that it can survive and compete with anything else out there. It's distinctive, it's powerful, it means something, it will actually reach down inside you and tug at everything, including your heart strings. It will shake you right down to your boots, if you'll allow it. And if some people don't get that, then it truly is their problem and their loss."