The Carthys: Non-Traditional Folk
The Carthy family has been at the vanguard of English folk for decades. And they’re still leading the way.
Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy are a father-daughter duo of English folk musicians. Both Martin (in 1998) and Eliza (in 2014) have received MBEs for their services to traditional English music.
Born near London in 1941, Martin Carthy has been performing professionally as a singer and guitarist since he was 16. His eponymous 1965 debut album featured an arrangement of the traditional ballad “Scarborough Fair” that Simon & Garfunkel used for their international hit. Martin began playing with English folk group The Watersons in 1972. Eliza was born in 1975 to Martin and his wife/bandmate Norma Waterson.
Eliza first played with the family group as a 6 year old and joined her parents’ band officially in the early 1990s. Together, the family has recorded numerous albums of traditional folk. Eliza also released several successful solo albums; Red Rice (1998) and Anglicana (2003) were both nominated for the Mercury Prize. She played violin on the successful 1998 album Mermaid Avenue by Wilco and Billy Bragg.
(Martin and Eliza Carthy singing from “Three Blind Men and the Elephant”)
Who went to see the elephant
Though all of them were blind
That each by observation
Traditional folk music has a peculiar place in the culture. It belongs to no one and everyone. It is outside the realms of copyright as its creators are often so distant in time as to be untraceable.
Satisfy his mind
Together, Martin and Eliza Carthy have been key components of the engine that has driven English folk music for more than half a century. In 1998, dad Martin was awarded an MBE, one of Britain’s highest civic honors, for his contributions to English traditional music. In 2014, his daughter received the same honor for her part in the 1990s folk revival.
(Eliza Carthy singing from “Blood on my Boots”)
Drinking champagne with Jerry Springer
I was young and dressed up to the nines
The duo made their debut in 1981 when a six-year-old Eliza insisted on coming onstage at the legendary Fleetwood Folk Festival.
Martin Carthy: And she said, “I’ll be able to come stay on stage tonight.” And I said, “honey you can’t do that yet,” “well, yes, I can,” you know. So, I said, “tell you what, you come on stage and stand next to me, and when you know the song, you just pull my knees like that and I’ll lift you up to the microphone and you can sing the song.” And she said, “all right,” and now it’s the first song and I felt this pull on my— Lifted her up, and you sang the song all the way through, absolutely word perfect, note perfect, singing harmonies and everything, absolutely wonderful.
(Waterson Carthy singing from “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”)
And dressed in clothes of leather
The dirty rags around my door
By her late teens, Eliza had officially joined the family band, Waterson Carthy. It had grown out of mother Norma Waterson’s successful family folk group, the Watersons. Their music reflected their Irish gypsy heritage which had been a fixture of British folk during the 1960s.
(The Watersons singing from “The Bonny Ship”)
And it’s cheer up me lads
Let your hearts never fail
Her father, Martin Carthy, had come to prominence in his own right with seminal English folk acts such as Dave Swarbrick, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. When he and Norma married in 1972, he joined up with her family band.
(Waterson Carthy singing from “Stars in my Crown”)
I shall reach
Their daughter would make the Waterson Carthy band a multi-generational affair.
When through wonderful grace by my Savior I stand
Will there be any stars in my crown?
Martin says that making music with family has always come naturally.
Martin Carthy: It’s always pretty straightforward, easy. Got a lot of, what we play isn’t what you’d call easy. But it’s—
Eliza Carthy: Easy’s the wrong, yeah.
Martin Carthy: Yeah, it’s straightforward, it’s intuitive, it’s almost automatically know where the other person is going and you wait for them to get there and then you carry on.
AJC: You had a kind of an odd upbringing though because most kids when the grownups stay up late and start drinking and the guitars come out, the kids get sent to bed. You got dragged out of bed for that, right?
Eliza Carthy: I did, my mom used to wake me up and bring me downstairs. She’d say, “You’ve got to come and hear this you’ve got to come and hear this.”
Martin Carthy: And sit her on the kitchen table with her dollies, you know, you’d be sitting there taking, you’d have a little snooze, then you’d sit up and listen whoever was there, we were having a little sing-song, yeah.
(Martin and Eliza Carthy singing from “Grand Conversation on Napoleon”)
He caused the money for to fly wherever he did go
Plans were arranging night and day
This bold commander to betray
He cries I’ll go to Moscow
and it then will ease my woes
If fortune shine without divine
All the world shall me obey
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose
Thousands and thousands then did rise
To conquer Moscow by surprise
He led his men across the Alps
Oppressed by frost and snow
But being near the Russian land
He then began to open his eyes
From the outside, Martin Carthy has been a sort of musical anthropologist, rediscovering many great English folk songs, some of which gained huge popularity in the hands of other artists, including Bob Dylan.
(Bob Dylan singing from “The Girl from North Country”)
She once was a true love of mine
But most notably, Simon and Garfunkel. Their rendition of Scarborough Fair appeared in the blockbuster 1967 movie, The Graduate, which is also one of the biggest selling soundtracks of all time.
(Simon and Garfunkel singing from “Scarborough Fair”)
She once was a true love of mine
It never sat well with Martin Carthy that he wasn’t credited on the record.
Martin Carthy: I was unhappy about it because it, as anybody would tell you, it’s extremely comforting and comfortable to be a victim, you know, because everybody’s sorry for you and you know, yeah what a drag. And after a while I got, I actually wrote a letter, did this blog on the web and coined this phrase, “trudge through the grudge”. I actually got fed up to the bat teeth with this trudge through the grudge, it was sad. It was sort of like in front of a mirror and said, come on. For heaven’s sake, it’s a traditional song. He owns it as much as I do. Yes he did a version of the guitar arrangement that I had, it wasn’t exact, it was a version of it. And Art Garfunkel wrote that canticle on the top and it became huge.
(Martin Carthy singing from “Scarborough Fair”)
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
For once she was a true love of mine
Though the sound and status of traditional music in the UK has always ebbed and flowed it has for generations been an essential component of British musical identity. And it will continue to be so with, in all likelihood, a member of the Carthy family pointing the way.
(Martin and Eliza Carthy singing from “Happiness”)
I will follow him across the hill
and if I can catch him I will try to bring you
Oh yes, happiness
And if I can catch him I will try to bring you
All my love and happiness