U.K.'s Martin Carthy Lets His Guitar Speak

If Martin Carthy had been more of a fop, he might be a pop star today. But when this senior member of the English folk-music scene encountered Elvis Presley, back in the 1950s, he just couldn't believe his ears--or his eyes.

"It was a time when you either wore a grey suit or a black suit," he recalls, on the line from his Yorkshire home. "You only wore brown shoes or black shoes. I mean, when I first heard 'Blue Suede Shoes' it sort of ranked with the pearly slippers from The Wizard of Oz. It was fairy-story stuff. I'd seen suede shoes, but blue suede shoes? Don't be ridiculous."

Blessed with a stronger sense of style, a few of Carthy's peers tracked down the source of those blue suede shoes, discovered Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and changed the course of musical history. But in the long run Carthy may prove every bit as influential as the Beatles, for while he's never scored a Top 10 hit and has only rarely had teenagers scream for more of his songs, he's invented a musical style that shows no sign of going out of fashion.

Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Carthy got his start playing skiffle, a crude English approximation of American folk and blues styles. And when the skiffle boom exploded circa 1957 he, too, reacted by venturing deeper into American music, although he was always more interested in acoustic blues than electric rock 'n' roll. The country-blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, a frequent visitor to the U.K., was his initial mentor, but it wasn't long before Carthy made a discovery that would change his life.

"There was a club called the Ballads and Blues, and they had a particular old singer, a man called Sam Larner, who was an old herring fisherman from Great Yarmouth," says the veteran singer-guitarist. "I saw him when I was 17 years old, and he just knocked me over. I didn't know that music could be like that. The guitar player I had heard who was passionate enough to make me want to play the guitar, really play the guitar, was Big Bill Broonzy, and suddenly I saw this bloke who had exactly the same passion, and it blew me away."

Carthy's path was clear: he'd stick to the guitar, even though it was almost unknown in English traditional music, but rather than rework songs from the U.S., he'd learn the timeworn ballads of his own culture. And that's what he's still doing today, either alone--as he will be at the Vancouver Folk Music festival on Saturday and Sunday (July 17 and 18)--or with wife Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza Carthy in their Waterson-Carthy family band.

Over the years, Carthy has become one of the most accomplished singers of traditional music, but he has also emerged as a great innovator on the acoustic guitar. His much-copied picking style relies on a radically detuned instrument, a percussive, flamenco-inspired right hand, and rhythms that derive from English country dance music and the patterns of everyday speech.

"I made a very conscious effort in the 1970s to emulate the melodeon," he explains, referring to the small button accordion often used to accompany rural dancers. "I'd been trying to emulate the fiddle and maybe the pipes with my left-hand techniques, and then became really intrigued by what the melodeon could do in dance music. A little later on I got very interested in speech rhythms. That's my present lunacy, if you like: I'm very fond of just messing around with speech rhythms and seeing what can happen in music, because a lot of what I call old singers, some of whom are probably younger than I am, do that. They find all sorts of intriguing little pulses and lots of melodic variation. It's really fascinating where you can go with that."

The combination of Carthy's polyrhythmic picking with his dry, understated voice sets up a unique kind of tension. Those accustomed to commercial music might find his sound grating at first, but with longer exposure it soon turns compelling to an almost hypnotic degree, as many of the U.K.'s younger folk performers will attest. In recent years--and especially since the emergence of his pierced and peroxided daughter Eliza as a solo artist in her own right--Carthy has become a guru of sorts to the English folk scene. It's a position he's not entirely comfortable with, but not entirely unhappy about either.

"One of the things that's happening over here is that the younger singers are saying, 'Oh well, I don't want to listen to those old recordings. I want to listen to the last generation of singers, which is you,' meaning me," he says. "And I want to stop them and say, 'Now hang on a minute, this thing is not that linear.' But I love that they want to take on the whole thing. I think that's wonderful--and it makes me feel that I wasn't crackers 40 years ago."