England’s roots revivalists

Here’s another one for the archive from long ago. In April 1995 – just three months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake – I interviewed folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick before a concert in Osaka on their tour of Japan. It was an exciting meeting, for me at least, as my enthusiasm for English folk music had been reawakened around that time partly because of my discovery of the roots music of Okinawa. It’s strange how things can work out that way.

Both musicians were very approachable and we talked of many other things including the earthquake, Martin’s daughter Eliza (already a budding folk star) and the chances of Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League. A few years later I met Martin Carthy again, very briefly, at the annual Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire. It seems odd now that I refer to him in the interview as a ‘veteran’ as he is still very active today and continues to perform at the age of 76.

Dave Swarbrick also had a long and successful career and he toured the UK with Martin Carthy for the last time in 2015. Sadly, he died in June 2016.

England’s roots revivalists

John Potter meets folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

Are we about to experience another folk revival? Veteran folksinger Martin Carthy thinks so. “Suddenly there’s a whole lot of 18 to 24 year olds who are taking an interest on their own account. Many of them are the children of old buggers like us but a lot of them aren’t. Musical horizons have widened in the last few years. People have heard all these different kinds of music and maybe they’ve started thinking that perhaps they’ve got one of their very own and have gone looking in that direction.”

Singer, guitarist and mandolin player Martin Carthy was on his first trip to Japan. Many years ago he partnered Dave Swarbrick in England’s most famous folk duo. Now reformed as an occasional touring duo, Carthy and Swarbrick made a whistle-stop six day visit to Japan in April and spoke to me before their concert at Osaka’s Muse Hall. Minutes later, they delighted the appreciative Japanese audience with a stunning two hour set. The years were rolled back and the confidence and sheer joy of their performance shone through.

Swarbrick (left) and Carthy: this photo was taken on stage in Osaka just after their concert.

Swarbrick’s former band Fairport Convention (who play at the same venue on June 26) practically invented English folk-rock at the end of the 60s. Their 1969 album Liege and Lief, featuring a number of traditional songs played with electric instruments, is still the yardstick by which all subsequent mixing of old and new has to be judged. What the Pogues were to do with Irish music had already been defined by Fairport many years before. The Fairport line-up of that year has changed almost beyond recognition as Richard Thompson left to pursue a successful solo career and bassist Ashley Hutchings to form a new band, Steeleye Span. Vocalist Sandy Denny – perhaps the greatest English singer of all – died tragically after a fall at the age of 31, and violinist Dave Swarbrick eventually left after 13 years with the band. Fairport seems to have thrived on the changes, though. Now fronted by original member Simon Nicol, they have released an impressive new album, Jewel in the Crown which has received rave reviews.

In the 70s, Carthy also had two brief spells as a member of Fairport offshoot, Steeleye Span. How do they view the change back from the big electric band sound to the acoustic partnership? “Duos are not always satisfying”, says Swarbrick, “but ours is to us, I suppose, because we aim to extend what we do. I like playing in groups too, as there is more chance to improvise. There was plenty of opportunity for that with Fairport. In comparing the two groups I always thought that Steeleye added rock to folk, and Fairport added folk to rock.”

“But”, says Carthy, “the great thing that Fairport did for folkies was to bring in that element of really free blowing. It was different every time. With Steeleye we always played arrangements. And that’s fine. It just makes the two things different. Of the two bands I think Fairport is the really interesting one because they change around so much.”

Both Carthy and Swarbrick are now involved in another new project, the Band of Hope. The five member acoustic band, formed to play what they call ‘songs of dissent’, released a debut album Rhythm and Reds last year.

Carthy is well known as a writer and adapter of songs with a strong leftist political and social message. “I think the political is an important part of folk music. There was definitely a time in the 70s when it became a little bit like going to a museum – which can be very nice, but is not connected with anything that matters to me. Folk music was going through a bad period and I began to think about the time when I was 18 to 21 and there was always something interesting happening. How come it wasn’t there any more? Because people aren’t basically that different, are they? Their aspirations are similar. So I rethought my repertoire, dumped a lot of stuff and focused more on socially relevant material.”

Cover of the duo’s 1990 album Life and Limb recorded in the USA.

In 1982, soon after the Falklands War, at a folk festival in England, Carthy realized that there was a need to fight back in song. “A guy stood up and he sang a song called ‘Ghost Story’ which was about the ghost of a soldier coming back and haunting Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. And he got booed. That staggered me. And enraged me too. That’s when I realized that things had gone badly adrift. I mean, people didn’t have to agree, but in the 60s they would never have booed.”

The situation is now a bit better following the arrival on the music scene of the likes of Billy Bragg who, says Carthy, “shook people up. But in Australia this year it was very noticeable how much more optimistic the Australian people are. In England it’s not like that. In Australia, I suppose, it can be a bit overwhelming.”

“Yes”, adds Swarbrick, who now lives there, “they keep telling me I should lighten up!”

The traditional song is still the major part of the Carthy/Swarbrick repertoire though and I wondered how Martin Carthy kept coming up with so many ‘new’ traditional songs. “I just read all the time and find songs that way. I’ve now got a fairly good library of slightly more obscure books. I can still find new things after all these years because you always miss something in books until you read again and again. Sometimes it’s nice to experiment and marry the wrong song with the wrong tune. And sometimes it’s nice to just do it straight and interesting things happen.”

Later this year they get together again to tour England and next March plan an invasion of America. But for the moment they have gone their separate ways – to Robin Hood’s Bay on the north coast of England and to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

(Kansai Time Out, June 1995).

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