Cunning Folk Interviews Martin Carthy

p01bqdydThis is Martin Carthy. He is amazing. No word of a lie, one of the finest guitarists the British Isles has ever produced.

Here is Famous Flower of Serving Men from his Shearwater album.

He is playing a candlelit concert in Southwark Cathedral on 22nd February (follow the link for very reasonably priced tickets) so in advance of this I thought I would ask him about some London memories. I also asked him if he had any superstitions…

Do you any superstitions? I never like to cross someone on the stairs & if I do I say “Ho Ho Ho, I don’t want to die on the Gallows!”

You were a chorister. How old were you when you went to the Savoy Choir? I was 12. I went for Southwark Cathedral & was rejected & it was suggested I went for the Queen’s Chapel of The Savoy. They worked with what they got & did some beautiful music.

If you had a stand out memory of singing at The Savoy what would it be? Probably singing Orlando Gibbons. I really got to love Orlando Gibbons’ church music

You were a student at St Olave’s Grammar School by Tower Bridge until when?
I left just before I was 18. I walked out of school at spring term of 1959. I got back home & said “I’m not going to go back to school next year”. I had taken my O-levels a year early & then my A-levels a year early & failed them miserably. The only positive thing that came out of it was that they gave me an O level pass in Ancient Greek because I’d done a really good greek verse paper. I used to like greek verse.

So you went from school into the folk scene, is that right? No, I went from school into the theatre. My first job was prompter at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It wasn’t exactly well paid. It was 5 shillings a show & there were 9 shows a week. Monday to Saturday with 2 matinees & you were paid for an extra matinee just in case. So I got 2 pounds 5 shillings a week & I did a couple of very spectacular prompts, one in 12th Night & one in Midsummer Night’s dream. The boss was an old stager called Robert Atkins, very well known in the theatre world, an actor manager; one of the people I prompted was him. He was furious & his wife said to him “He’s doing his job” & the next day he came up to me & said “You are now an assistant stage manager & I’m doubling your wages” so for the last 3 weeks of the season I was on 4 pounds 10. I was still the prompter but I could use the title to take on to my next job which I did.

So you continued to work in the theatre? Oh yes, the next thing I did was a nationwide tour of The Merry Widow.

So how long did you work in theatre for? I did a summer season after that in Scarborough in a theatre in the round. They took over one of the large rooms of the public library. That was the last job I had.

So when did you start playing guitar then? Well I was already playing guitar. I had my guitar with me when I went on the road & when I went to Scarborough. I actually got to play at one great folk club in Glasgow. We were in Glasgow for 2 weeks & the master carpenter in the theatre was a folky & through him I met Ray & Archie Fisher, Hamish Imlach, Bobby Campbell, Gordon McCulloch. They were the core of the Glasgow folk song scene in my age. The man who ran the folk club was called Norman Buchan who at one point became a labour MP for Renfrew West & also a minister in one of the Labour governments. A great man.

Any memories of Bungees Folk Club? I hardly ever went to Bungees when I was knocking around the West End & Soho. I didn’t actually like it very much. I was very early in the Skiffle Cellar scene & that became Les Cousins later on & I had to reacquaint myself with the place. I was very much a Skiffle Cellar person as they had a better mixture. I was part of the Thames Side Four by that time & we had our own folk club at the King & Queen near Goodge Street. It’s become a folk club again. (Musical Traditions)
Do you have any memories of Ramblin Jack Elliot? I didn’t meet him when he first came over. He was a figure of legend, he worked between London & Paris. There was a whole movement of people who would go to Paris & sing on the street & then in the summer would go on the National 7 down to the South coast to Cannes & Nice. They were called “The Paris Bums”. I was never one of them. Alex Campbell was, Derroll Adams was & they were very much in the forefront of that wing of the folk scene.

Where did you first meet Wizz Jones? I saw him down at the G&G, the Gyre & Gymbal down in Villiers Street near Charing Cross Station. It was a cellar & had been going a long time. I think he was singing “The Molecatcher”. I saw him playing guitar as well, even then he was one of the top guitar players & he still is.

One Last question: do you have any memories of Luke Kelly? Oh yes, certainly, he was always down at The Troubadour. He was lovely, quite a wild man but he was a really generous soul & he loved to sing. He lived in Birmingham but he always came down to London & was always looking for a floor to sleep on. My wife at the time & I had a room with 2 beds in it & he would sleep in the other bed. He would lie in the other bed (he would always have had a few to drink) & he would sing at the top of his voice for a long time. He sang himself to sleep. He was a great man. I was astounded when he became part of The Dubliners because one of the major things that happened to the London folk scene was the arrival at Ken Colyer’s Jazz Club not in any folk club of Ronnie Drew & Barney McKenna. People were really blown away by what Barney McKenna could do on a tenor banjo. Never heard the banjo played like that ever. I was thunderstruck by his playing & equally incredibly impressed by Ronnie Drew’s singing. He had a great musical understanding.

Martin Carthy is playing a candlelit concert at Southwark Cathedral on February 22nd. Tickets are £15/12.50concs.

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