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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, July 26, 2004
    More mobile than a pile of bricks
    "The English don't know who they are. They have given up their identity and sold an idea of 'Britain' - the Tower of London is England; Buckingham Palace is England; the Yeomen of the Guard is England. Ain't no culture there.

    "What identifies me is music. I think what identifies English people is their music, and their dance, and their literature and their painting ... that stuff. Stuff that's more mobile than a pile of bricks."

    Seldom does a TV programme bear repeating twice in 24 hours, but that's been my experience with BBC Four's documentary Originals: Martin Carthy. First time I saw it I was struck by the gentle passion of the man, his supreme artistry with folk song and guitar, and the wonder of watching a musical family perform so well together (Carthy often appears with wife Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza; eg at last year's Greenbelt). Second time, more of the same, plus deeper engagement with the man's words, such as his definition of English culture, above, and the gracious way he describes Eliza's musical gifts:

    "Liza has always been an entire musician. From when she was 17 or 18 appearing on stage with us, she's always been complete, never tentative, she has always commanded what she did, and gradually she has spread her net wider..."

    Such generosity chimes in well with Eliza's view that

    "There is a lack of ego and politics that you have when it comes to playing with your family. I mean, not even just the intuition that people talk about, not even knowing what's going to happen next, but also having the confidence and the comfort to try anything."

    I think she may be underplaying the uniqueness of Waterson:Carthy, because of the numerous family bands scattered through musical history there are few with such a seemingly open supportive character (ponder, briefly, Noel and Liam's stormy relationship, or, going back, the turbulent times of the Kinks...).

    Embracing the power of positive family values is one thing about Carthy. The other - which is closely linked - is the power of the music, which engrosses him and which, with every note, every sinew, he celebrates. From the old bluesmen and women of America to the hidden champions of English people's song, Carthy was into it from an early age, having what Norma described as "a Damascus Road experience" at a Sam Larner gig aged 17. His approach to performance is direct, his opinion of the canon of English folk songs is revealing:

    "All you've got to do is deliver a song from here (puts finger to his mouth) to the person's ear there (touches his ear) - that's all you've got to do. And anything else is nonsense. It's simple. It's very simple. These are great stories. They make you laugh, they make you quake in your boots, they make you fear to walk outside the door. They make you close your windows and doors at night. They make you behave.

    "I allow the song to do its job, the job that it's done for several hundred years; and when I'm properly a conduit for the song the gap between the audience and me disappears. You're actually trying to wake the beast, let the beast appear in the middle. And that's what makes a song work."

    Something priestly in that, but I won't linger there. I'll end where I began, with another quote from Carthy about the uniqueness of English music, its value to us, the excitement about it which he shares:

    "The thing that makes it extraordinary is that the songs of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and so on ... have led me back to the English countryside. We were all curious about this music because it was new to us, and fascinating, and foreign, and exotic - and it was ours."