The other day I was listening to Tom Robinson talking to Martin Carthy on the importance of Lonnie Donegan’s song The Rock Island Line. I knew it had a big impact on bands such as the Beatles, but according to Carthy, on British music as a whole. Before this, music on British radio was lots of standards – often good ones, but still standards, and light entertainment of the likes of Max Bygraves.
But this song started a revolution. Everyone went out and got a guitar, or if they were really skint, a tea chest, a broom handle and a piece of string got them a bass. Carthy spoke of a Eureka moment. Everyone was in a skiffle band, just like the Sex Pistols started the punk revolution.
Carthy had a school friend whose dad had some records by Leadbellly and Woody Guthrie, which were a revelation to him. He learned that the song Gamblin’ Man was the Irish song The Beggar Man, so some of this wonderful music he was hearing from the states was not foreign, but from these shores. r rather ear They briefly discussed Leadbelly’s life, his years in prison, and how his singing got him released early, and of course the work of Alan Lomax in bringing his work to the public eye. Or, rather public ear. Carthy also laughed at how the lyrics to Goodnight Irene had been cleaned up, from I’ll get you in my dreams to I’ll see you….
Carthy is best known in the states for his contact with the young Simon and Garfunkel and allegedly introduced them to the song Scarborough Fair, so as the Brits were discovering American versions of British songs, the Americans were over here in search of what was left of the originals.
Carthy had long known the words of the poem Sir Patrick Spence, which his mother had recited to him from the Oxford Book of Ballads. Carthy’s friend found a tune to it. He always thought it was a true story about how Margaret the maid of Norway came back from abroad in 1282.
He spoke of the Ballads of Britain, a book that was in all the public libraries and became the bible for the new generation of folk singers such as him.
They spoke of Topic Records – the label was formed by the Communist Workers Music Association, recording political folk music from the1950s, including Euan Macoll. They rarely recorded the traditional singers such as gypsies. He said singers used to have a huge repertoire of songs handed down within families, but the only ones left now are a few gypsies. He says he was in a famous pub called the Swan and Sugarloaf in the 1970s when some gypsies came in and at the end they went around shaking everyone’s hands, saying how much they liked it, which is probably the only time the new folkies ever met up with the old ones.
Robinson asked Carthy about his daughter Eliza, and if she was always destined to become a folk singer. He spoke of how she grew up surrounded by music, as her mother Norma Watersone is from a long line of respected folk singers. Eliza learnt all the Waterstone songs by the time she was 6 and performed with them. Eliza began as a punk fiddle player, and her father spoke fondly of how she is the real proselytiser of the family, telling people all these songs are out therefor us to find and to sing. It is so strange to hear of the early antagonism from the traditional folk fraternity towards the singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s. Carthy spoke of how nothing is fixed, the word changes and our music should be reflecting our lives.
Carthy mentioned a Sankey hymn, Sleep My Beloved, used at funerals when the coffin was being lowered down or when someone leaves the village. It was sung by Staithes fishermen’s choir, but it was also known in the Bahamas as I Bid You Goodnight. It has the wonderful line, ‘we love you but Jesus loves you best’. They have since discovered it is sung in fishing communities around the world.
Carthy spoke of Ian Stewart, who played keyboards with the early Rolling Stones but was demoted to roadie as he was not young or good looking enough to be in the band!