Martin Carthy: Essential


Format:  CD (2 discs)

Genre:  Folk (Traditional)

Tracks:  34

Playing time:  141 minutes

Availability (out of 3):  ***

Related website(s) (unofficial):

 My rating:  10/10

I like: Several tracks blow me away (instrumentals and vocal); poignant songs, light-hearted songs, upbeat instrumentals, melodic tunes

I’m less keen on :  –



Martin Carthy is little known outside folk circles but is a legend within them. Anyone wishing to explore traditional English folk music could do far worse than to start with one of his albums. He is a fine singer with an assured, natural and slightly nasal sound, and a very adept guitar (and mandolin) player. I’ve been privileged to see him live on several occasions.


In a career that commenced in the 1960s and continues today, Martin has performed and recorded solo, and with several bands, including The Albion Band, Steeleye Span, Brass Monkey, the Watersons (having married Norma Waterson) and his daughter Eliza Carthy. Repeatedly through his career he gigged with the late, great fiddle player, Dave Swarbrick.


Martin plays guitar in altered tunings that produce something of a drone sound. American guitarist and teacher Stefan Grossman once described the sound as at one and the same time authentic yet funky. Martin delivers songs in a slightly unusual way. His empathy with the lyrics means that at times he fits the music around the words rather than trying to fit the words into the music. I think that this strengthens the force of the lyrics and adds a “free” feel to the song. I’ve already mentioned his voice and his skill on guitar, so won’t repeat myself at this point.

The album

comes in a jewel case and comprises 2 discs. I’m old fashioned and prefer hard copy music and like to have the accompanying notes to hand when I’m listening to it.


It’s a compilation drawn from 1965 to 2004 and covers various musical collaborations as well as solo recordings. The tracks are arranged chronologically, which I feel is the most appropriate sequence, and the notes list the album from which each track is taken. I’m honoured to have Martin’s autograph on the cover of my copy.

Most tracks are traditional songs, with a few instrumentals for good measure.

The tracks…

 I’ll confine myself to a few of the tracks – my particular favourites!

“Scarborough Fair” commences the album. Martin taught his arrangement of this traditional song to Paul Simon, and for many years received no remuneration from Simon’s commercial hit. Those familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel version will probably prefer it, but to me this is a fine arrangement as Martin lists the impossible conditions to be met for a former relationship to be renewed.

“Broomfield Hill” is a light-hearted song about a wager with a young lady. Will she be able to meet her lover in the countryside and still return a maiden? Unusually only a mandolin accompanies the lyrics. I think it makes a perfect foil to Martin’s voice, with a higher pitch than that of a guitar. At times it mirrors the melody and at others it plays a counter-harmony or is strummed. In my opinion, it’s played to great effect and really enhances the song.

“Lord Franklin” tells the somewhat embellished but true tale of an ill-fated seaborn quest undertaken in 1847 to find the fabled “north west passage” around the tip of Canada. There were no survivors and no bodies were found,despite the offer of a government reward for successful location of the ships and men.


Reward for the discovery of Franklin’s ships 

There are Inuit tales of encounters with some of the crew on the ice months after the ships became ice-locked. The Inuit spoke in hushed tones years later of evidence of cannibalism of the crew members’ dead comrades.

Such stories didn’t sit well with the reputation of brave English explorers, of course, and were dismissed for a long time. That was a pity, as the Inuit actually attested the bravery and remarkable endurance of the men (whom they were unable to help due to their own meagre resources). Their tales indicate that although clothed and equipped for sea exploration, at least some of the crew survived on the ice for a number of months.

I loved this song when I heard John Renbourn’s version, but I like Martin’s take just as much. I feel that the relative simplicity of his guitar accompaniment allows the poignancy of the words to stand out.

“The Bee’s Wing” is a light-hearted, uplifting instrumental that I feel gives a great insight into the magical musical partnership between Martin and Dave Swarbrick. “Swarb” had an unusual, slightly jazzy fiddle style for folk music, initially criticised by pundits for non-authenticity.

“Geordie” is a sad ballad with a striking guitar accompaniment that mirrors the melody. Martin never tries to add extra melodrama with his voice, instead allowing the words to tell the tale on their own merits. It’s a traditional song about a man on trial for stealing sixteen wild deer belonging to the king. His wife makes a journey to plead for clemency, but it’s too late “for he’s been condemned already”. The song itself and Martin’s delivery of it are very moving.

“Lovely Joan” is a lighter-hearted song and a reversal of fortunes from a common theme in traditional folk. I like the accordion and trumpet accompaniment to this – to me it enhances the humorous and slightly rollicking theme. Just as a young man feels that everything is going his way as he seeks to seduce a young lady he finds himself disadvantaged!

“Siege Of Delhi” is, I feel, a splendid guitar instrumental (the sleeve notes incorrectly ascribe the “vocals” to Martin!) that makes a solid contribution to this compilation. It’s a real foot-tapper of a tune (helped in this by a drum) that is infectiously light-hearted in sound, and I always chuckle with delight as it ends!

“The Devil And The Feathery Wife” is a traditional tale about a poor farmer who makes a deal with the devil. Just when all seems lost at the end of his seven years of prosperity, his wife comes up with an idea to outwit the Fiend and save her husband from being dragged off “for to view the ovens of hell”.

This song is an example of the way that Martin fits the music around the words and sings in a slightly (musically) free style, and, to me, both the accordion and Martin’s guitar give this something of a “Morris” feel.

“Sovay” tells a story with a twist in the tail. I have a live version of this song (on “Both Ears And The Tail) performed by Martin and by Dave Swarbrick at breakneck speed. I far prefer the slower, statelier sound and feel of this one, largely due to the trombone and trumpet that play along with accordion and Martin’s guitar. It’s a song – and an arrangement – that combines romance with a touch of menace.


It tells the story of a young woman who determines to test the strength of her lover’s faithfulness. She disguises herself as a highway robber and waylays him, demanding his valuables. Will he prove faithful and refuse to hand over the ring that the “robber” knows he has and that is a token of his lady’s love for him, though?!

“Bill Norrie” is one of the most moving and tragic traditional folk songs in my collection (and I have a few!), and I feel that those who dismiss all folk music out of hand are missing out hugely.

Martin’s guitar playing has a striking rhythmic yet melodic sound created by the chord changes,  which I really feel adds to the intensity of the song. The story holds no initial surprises – a jealous husband disguising himself and going to meet the young man whom his wife has been invited to meet in the woods. It carries on as we might expect, too – the enraged husband takes off the man’s head with his knife. He takes it home and throws it to his wife with the taunt, “Lady, catch the ball!” But all isn’t as it appeared…

“Famous Flower Of Serving Men” is a haunting tale of a mother’s murderous malice that is eventually avenged. It’s a long track but to be truthful I find it captivating. To me, both the lyrics and the gorgeous guitar arrangement weave a real magic.

Concluding comments

To me, this is a fine introduction to traditional folk music, especially for those with an interest in acoustic guitar. I suppose that some may prefer a female vocal for a first taste of the genre, but Martin’s voice is easy enough to listen to. I’m not a lover of all folk music, but I find the songs on this album generally very melodic, which I like.

My  rating reflects the considerable number of songs or instrumentals that blow me away, and although there are some songs that I like more (or less) than others, this is down to personal taste, and I don’t feel that the album has any weaknesses.

Overall rating: 10/10


Picture credits:

1:   Section “Who?”:

2:   “Reward for the discovery of Franklin’s ships” –’s_lost_expedition

3:   “Sovay” lyrics and melody –


Author: mostlyacousticsteve

My musical interests are mainly (but not exclusively) “folk” and acoustic blues music. I aim to publish a post about every two weeks. Although I'm in my 50s I'm new to blogging - please bear with me. My other interests are playing acoustic guitar, photography and wildlife.

2 thoughts on “Martin Carthy: Essential”

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