Martin Carthy facts

Seven things you didn’t know about English folk legend

Interview

On May 21, Martin Carthy turned 70 – just three days before his old mucker Bob Dylan. We caught up with the English folk legend, who was in a celebratory mood.

He’s 70 going on 18.
‘I’m reminded that it’s all falling to bits when I try to get out of a car. I think, come on you stupid b******, you’ve got muscles, get out of the car! But you can’t. I’m 18, I know that, my body just doesn’t agree.’

A fisherman converted him to folk on London’s Edgware Road.
‘The music you heard on the radio back then was paltry pop stuff, “I’m a pink toothbrush, you’re a blue toothbrush.” Seeing Sam Larner at the Ballads & Blues was the first time I’d been faced with the idea that traditional music is a very sophisticated thing.’

He thought it sounded pretty exotic at the time.
‘English folk music is not in your bones, it’s not in your genes. These tunes were as exotic to me as the Indian music I’d just started hearing. And if I were half as passionate as Sam Larner still was at the age of
80, I’d be a happy man.’

He facilitated Bob Dylan’s London debut…
‘I’d seen his picture on the cover of Sing Out!. Not long afterwards he walked in to the London pub when I was playing. I asked if he’d liked to sing a song. I’ve heard people say he was rubbish when he sang in the UK. He was not. He was brilliant. “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” went down a storm. This was 1962, so he was 21.’

…and smashed up a piano with him.
‘I was living in London’s Haverstock Hill in a room with a wood-burning stove. Me and Bob came back at 2am from the Troubadour club in Earl’s Court. I’d been given this samurai sword by a pretend auntie who worked for British intelligence and got it from a British officer who’d taken it off a Japanese officer in surrender. And there was this piano, which my friend had bought for two quid. It was really cold, so I got the sword and was about to take a swipe when Bob stood in front of me and said, ‘You can’t do that! That’s a musical instrument.’ I said, ‘It’s a piece of junk, I’m cold.’ And soon he was asking to have a go. That piano kept us going throughout the winter.’

He’s forgiven Paul Simon.
‘We talked about it in ’98 when he came over. He said, “I did credit you for the arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’, I told journalists about you, and they all said, ‘Martin who?’” I was p***** off for quite a few years, and then I found out that he gets no money for it, not a penny. And anyway, being a victim is terribly comfortable, but it’s not good for one.’

His earring is his wedding band.
‘Pierced ears were outlandish in those days. It usually meant you’d been inside. Norma and I got ours done together on our honeymoon. We found this place in Dawlish that also did tattoos. As we walked in there was this Dutch guy having an enormous four-master tattooed on his chest, blood all over the place. The poor tattooist was glad of the break and took a bit of time over our ears.’

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