Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Martin Carthy, Discovering the Funk Deep in the Soul of British Folk Music.

If Martin Carthy's music never existed, I'm convinced that I would be haunted by a feeling that the world was missing something. His playing seems like a fundamental part of the Universe, like gravity.

Who is Martin Carthy? Only the guy who taught Paul Simon to play "Scarborough Fair".  The guy whom Bob Dylan tapped for his knowledge of British Ballads. The guy from whom Johnny Marr said he cribbed guitar lines,  merely speeding them up. Michael Hedges and Pierre Bensusan have praised him and worked elements of his playing into their approaches.

Carthy has an uncanny ability to carve away everything inessential from a song. His sense of time is exquisite. He plays the silences as well as the notes. His brilliant and bold use of dissonance and modal scales, combined with his unique percussive guitar transfixed me since I first heard him in the late 1970's. Somehow Carthy discovered the funk deep in the soul of British Folk Music.

He applies the same ruthless genius to his accompaniments for other musicians, creating lines that interact and enhance others melodies with subtle invention. He builds in tension and releases it at the last instant, infusing drama where so many others can't even imagine it.

In addition to his playing and singing, he has been a collector and restorer of damaged or fragmented songs. With the fine eye of a diamond carver, he will fit a husk of an old song with a new tune, add carefully chosen words, and bring it alive, widening the repertoire.

I've learned over time that some people just don't get Martin Carthy and are happy to do without his music. I could do that. Right before I give up breathing.


  1. This is almost exactly how I feel about Martin. Wonderful piece and a great illustration x

  2. Thank you. It's nice to know I'm not alone!