Martin Carthy

And A Begging I Will GoMartin Carthy
Lord FranklinSecond Album
Davy LowstonByker Hill
Matt HylandBut Two Came By
Cold Haily Windy NightLandfall
Famous Flower Of Serving MenShearwater
SkewbaldSweet Wivelsfield
Willie's LadyCrown Of Horn
Nothing RhymedBecause It's There
Jolly TinkerBecause It's There
Siege Of DelhiBecause It's There
The Devil And The Feathery WifeOut Of The Cut
A Stitch In TimeRight Of Passage
The Bows Of LondonLife And Limb
Prince HeathenSigns Of Life



Contributors: Ian Ashleigh, Andrew Shields, Merric Davidson

3 contributors, 5 songs each, those were the rules. 15 songs were indeed chosen, incredibly without overlap. On to contributor number one…

Martin Carthy MBE was part of the 1960s folk revival that gave us Bert Jansch (see Toppermost #234), Ralph McTell (see Toppermost #193) and others, but as crucial as Jansch & McTell are, Martin Carthy seems to me to be the most important of all. His influence stretches beyond folk music and across the Atlantic. Paul Simon was part of the scene around Les Cousins in Soho and it is Martin Carthy’s interpretation of Scarborough Fair that is the basis of the song on Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (see Toppermosts #69 & #78). As I explored the folk thread that commenced with Fairport Convention’s folk-rock (see Toppermost #56), I became aware that Dave Swarbrick had worked and recorded with Martin Carthy. And so it was again from the Folk section of the Brent Town Hall Library in Wembley that I was able to sample my introductions to Martin Carthy. All these years later, I now cannot remember which albums were there (one of them may have been Sweet Wivelsfield). I now have my own collection of vinyl, CDs and downloads of songs recorded by Martin Carthy that inform later recordings by other artists.

I have only had the privilege of seeing the great man live once. This was in Coventry (where I was at university) at a folk club on the Fletchamstead Highway (part of the main A45 between Coventry and Birmingham) imaginatively called The Fletch Folk Club. I have an abiding memory of Martin Carthy completely captivating the room and the audience being completely spellbound. I also have a memory of Martin Carthy breaking a string, tying the ends together and continuing to play, which for all practical purposes must be inaccurate. It was one of the highlights of my life as a music fan.

Although associated with being one of Britain’s finest interpreters of acoustic music, Carthy had two brief stints as a member of Steeleye Span (see Toppermost #26) and there is a picture of him on one of their albums with a Fender Telecaster in ‘rock star’ pose.

Martin Carthy has collaborated with many fine musicians over the years and these include Dave Swarbrick (violin) and John Kirkpatrick (accordion, melodeon and concertina) each one augmenting Carthy’s distinctive guitar style.

Carthy has never been shy of pushing the musical boundaries of folk music. With Kirkpatrick, he was a member of Brass Monkey that tied the tradition to brass instruments and See How It Runs is a perfect example of their work. Martin Carthy is married to Norma Waterson and it is with their daughter, Eliza, that he contributes to the collaboration that is The Imagined Village; a further example of his willingness to explore how traditional British folk music can be incorporated into different musical styles.

In a recent interview, he discussed singing with his family in Waterson:Carthy. He observed the distinctive sound created when people related to each other sing together. Norma Waterson expressed her surprise at this observation, having sung with her family all her life. Martin Carthy’s Desert Island Discs, first broadcast in January 2013, can be heard on the Radio 4 website. Here is a quote from the interview: “In my opinion there is no such thing as bad music. There may be bad players or bad singers but I don’t like the idea of inferior music.”

It was a tough ask being restricted to five selections, but five it is and these are they. They are long-standing favourite songs of mine and focus on four specific albums that I have listened to time and again over the years.

We have observed how Martin Carthy is a premier interpreter of traditional songs and he can do contemporary just as well, as evidenced with the first of my five. Nothing Rhymed (Because It’s There 1979) was written by the much maligned Gilbert O’Sullivan but it is such a good song that it lends itself perfectly to the Carthy/Kirkpatrick arrangement and sits very, very well with the traditional songs around it. Carthy does change one word, referring to ‘Bonaparte Shandy’ rather than Bonaparte Brandy in the original.

Right Of Passage (1998) is a spectacular album. A Stitch In Time is based on a true story and put into song by Martin Carthy’s brother-in-law, Mike Waterson. It happened in about 1962 in the Hessle Road area of Hull and the tune is that of a brutal Royal Navy song called On Board Of A Man-of-war. It is a tale of domestic violence and how when a woman puts her mind to it she can teach her husband a lesson using his own medicine against him.

Landfall (1971) is another favourite album and the imagery of Cold Haily Windy Night (a re-recording of the song on Steeleye Span’s Please To See The King) chose itself. The notes on the album sleeve state the song is based on the version collected by Baring Gould in the South West of England. The tune comes from Johnson’s Musical Museum, with a composite text. Although this version may not be very old, in its various parts the idea is as old as the hills, for it is to be found, among other places, in the Song of Songs: “Let me in my love, my dove, my undefiled, for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.” Martin Carthy is renowned for his guitar style but the album completes with a fine acappella version of Dave Goulder’s song January Man.

Skewbald is a colour pattern on a horse. A skewbald horse has a coat made up of white patches on a non-black base coat, such as chestnut or bay. The song has been variously recorded as Skewball and Skewbald, the story originates in Ireland. Sometime late in the 18th century, a skewbald horse owned by Arthur Marvell was matched against Sir Ralph Gore’s grey mare, Miss Portly, on the racecourse of Kildare. Something about the English horse seemed to fire the ballad-maker’s fancy, and the song of the race was soon appearing in popular pocket songsters. As it has survived in Britain, the original ballad would seem to be of Irish origin. The detail of the dialogue between Skewball and his jockey reminds one of the Irish countryside belief that certain travelling horse dealers have the power of holding conversation with their horses. This appears on Martin Carthy’s 1974 album Sweet Wivelsfield.

The bawdy ballad Jolly Tinker, again from Because It’s There, completes my five. Accompanied by John Kirkpatrick’s concertina and Howard Evans’ trumpet, Carthy sings the song without acknowledgment of the content or the lyric.

Ian Ashleigh


It is, perhaps, a measure of the signal nature of Martin Carthy’s achievements that to describe him as the greatest figure in the ‘second wave’ of the English Folk Revival (if the ‘first wave’ is taken to include people like Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, whose contributions to folk music in England often tend to be overlooked nowadays) no longer seems like either a controversial or a questionable statement but rather like a simple statement of fact. Over a career which has now lasted over five decades, his influence on the course of folk music both within England and outside it has been incalculable.

A simple enumeration of those people he has either influenced or worked with would include almost all of the most prominent figures in contemporary English folk music as well as a large cross section of their Scottish and Irish counterparts. This, of course, is not to mention the critical role that he played as a key early influence in the careers of both Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Along with his excellent solo work, Carthy has also been a key figure in a succession of pioneering folk and folk-rock groups, running all the way through from Steeleye Span to Brass Monkey through to the superb work he has done with The Watersons and subsequently with Waterson:Carthy.

As the tracks I have selected here also show, Carthy is one of the greatest interpreters of folk songs to have ever emerged from the British Isles. He is also a highly skilled guitarist, whose excellence as an arranger is sometimes overlooked. The first of these songs, Lord Franklin, is one of the greatest English folk songs and Carthy’s performance of it here is outstanding, bringing out the dramatic qualities inherent in the song in a subtle and unobtrusive way. It also features one of Carthy’s typically delicate and beautifully understated guitar accompaniments. It was from this version of the song that Bob Dylan was to draw the inspiration for his own Bob Dylan’s Dream which appeared on his classic The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. However, in my opinion at least, Lord Franklin remains a much superior song and Carthy’s version has an emotional depth to it which the other song simply cannot equal.

My second selection, Davy Lowston, is one of the most remarkable performances of Carthy’s career. It shows how a great performer can take a song which, on paper, appears like a very plain one with a simple melody and imbue it with a power and depth which many much more portentous songs cannot rival. As Carthy’s skills as a guitar player are often not given the accolades that they deserve, I have included the superb instrumental, Siege Of Delhi, from his excellent 1979 album, Because It’s There. The track is, perhaps, the best example of Carthy’s remarkable dexterity and deftness on the guitar. There is also a very good youtube clip where Carthy demonstrates how he developed his arrangement of the tune and gives some of the historical background to it.

My fourth selection is the masterly version of The Bows Of London which Carthy recorded with the great fiddler, Dave Swarbrick, on their 1990 album, Life And Limb. In a career that has featured many brilliant collaborations, the musical partnership between these two great musicians, which goes back to the mid-1960s, must rank among the very finest. As for The Bows Of London it is a variant version of the great Child ballad, The Twa Sisters (or The Two Sisters) of which Paul Clayton recorded, perhaps, the definitive version. Carthy’s version of it is an excellent one, and its effect is greatly enhanced by some typically brilliant fiddling from Swarbrick. By this point, the musical understanding between them had reached a point where it seemed almost intuitive. As a result, their performances had reached a new level of subtlety which reflected both men’s complete mastery of their craft.

My final choice here is the magnificent version of the old English folk song, Prince Heathen, which appeared on Carthy’s 1998 album, Signs Of Life, an album whose numerous highlights include fine versions of the Bee Gees’ New York Mining Disaster 1941 and of the great Hoagy Carmichael’s Hong Kong Blues. Like many other folk songs, Prince Heathen was one that Carthy had ‘worried’ away at for a long time. Indeed, the first version he recorded of it was on the album of the same title he made with Dave Swarbrick in 1969. In this instance, Carthy’s persistence and willingness to experiment with new arrangements works spectacularly and, in my opinion, this later version is the definitive one of the song.

I have only had the opportunity to see Martin Carthy perform live once and that was in Dublin in the late 1990s. Sadly, on that occasion, the venue was less than full, but his performance that night was impeccable. What also shone through in that concert was his palpable decency and generosity. These features, combined with an unusual grace, dignity and integrity have also been ones which have characterised the entire career of this great musician and wonderful ambassador for English folk music.

Andrew Shields


So many versions of so many songs from the 50s/60s folk revival and, as the years have unfolded since, it’s hard to remember the sequence of songs, where you first heard them, who sang them then, who’s singing them now. The only thing to be sure of is that these traditional songs arouse deep emotions and never more so than in the hands and voice of Martin Carthy.

For me, the best way to tackle an MC Top 5 (and 10 or 20 would be equally as difficult) was to think of his oeuvre as “his” songs. Those on his first few albums would have been songs I’d have heard for the first time on release. After that, it’s been kind of a catching up exercise to listen to the earlier greats and the songbooks of others such as Shirley Collins, The Watersons, Anne Briggs, The Young Tradition etc.

Carthy was influenced by early 20th century traditional singers like Harry Cox, Seamus Ennis, the Copper Family, Walter Pardon, Sam Larner of whom he said, “I knew that I had been privileged to have been in the presence of genuine greatness”, Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd in late fifties Britain, and by Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten and others in the US.

Martin Carthy was the father figure of the Folk Revival of that period, and his progress from traditional to electric to all stations in between in the last fifty years has been nothing short of remarkable and shows no signs of abating.

I probably first saw him play at the Brentwood Folk Club, mid-60s. It’s hard to recall, it could have been Bunjies in London. He carried a reputation with him even then, as a performer who’d think nothing of travelling all around the British Isles – he still doesn’t drive – to play a gig in front of whoever turned up. Come all ye! He’s never actually stopped doing that – although he probably travels a bit more comfortably these days – and in the times I’ve seen him over the years, right up to his latest projects, he’s never been anything other than an enlightening, captivating, modest, brilliant performer.

In 1971, he is on Steeleye Span’s best album, Please To See The King. Five years later, he’s involved with Ashley Hutchings again on The Albion Country Band’s fantastic album, Battle Of The Field. He was a co-founder of The Imagined Village. He has contributed to projects by Peter Bellamy, Leon Rosselson (who was also in The Three City Four group with him in 1964), John Kirkpatrick in Brass Monkey, and of course The Watersons. Right through to now and Waterson:Carthy, along with his wife and daughter. There are a fair few toppermost candidates scattered throughout this illustrious career. And although we cover Dave Swarbrick in this post (four of the early albums are credited to both Carthy and Swarbrick) we sorely need a Swarbrick toppermost to capture his extraordinary output.

These, then, are my fabulous five.

That 1965 first album, Martin Carthy, is outstanding. Featuring mainly trad. arr. songs with the exception of Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger’s Springhill Mine Disaster, traditional songs like High Germany, The Two Magicians, Sovay, Lovely Joan … all brand new to me at the time (apart from a couple that Joan Baez had recorded a few years earlier, The Trees They Do Grow High and The Queen Of Hearts) with some of them dating back to the 18th century! This was the album with Carthy’s version of Scarborough Fair with the parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme refrain. I might have chosen The Barley And The Rye from Martin Carthy but, among all the other versions of this song, I have a soft spot for Robin Dransfield’s version on Tidewave (1980). Although there are so many great renditions on this first album, the one I’m taking at the top of my allotted five is the last track on side two, And A Begging I Will Go. In fact, this one dates back to the 17th century although this is Ewan MacColl’s version (which I had yet to hear). From Martin’s liner notes:

“Begging really was a trade in Scotland when the King distributed alms to an order of paupers known as Bedesmen who in return were supposed to pray for King and State. They were licensed and the King had one bedesman for every year of his life … In Scotland a general respect for the beggars hung on long after the actual practice had died out.”

The song finds Dave Swarbrick accompanying on mandolin (and on fiddle on several other tracks on the album). Lifelong musical partners and friends, they re-recorded it twenty five years later on their reunion album, Life And Limb. Throughout Carthy’s career, his collaboration with Swarb has been remarkable:

“Dave and I got on like mad. He used to play fiddle for Bert Lloyd. Bert loved Dave because he could follow him anywhere he went. He sang the most outrageous time signatures and Dave just stood behind him and played. Dave didn’t play time signatures, still doesn’t. He plays melody – if a melody goes weird, Dave plays with it. He really is as extraordinary as he ever was. He’s probably a bit more organized now, a wonderful, wonderful player.” (Martin Carthy from “Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs” by JP Bean, Faber & Faber, 2014)

The 4th album from Carthy/Swarbrick, But Two Came By, contains not only Sidney Carter’s Lord Of The Dance but several staples from the revival also recorded by others, including Poor Murdered Woman (Shirley Collins), Jack Orion (Bert Jansch), Long Lankin (Steeleye Span) and they’re all great, but the one I’m going for is the delightful song of Matt Hyland. Carthy writes: “… an Irish song which I first heard three or four years ago … I tried to find the words but without success until a singer gave them to me at a ceilidh. I can’t remember his name for which I am sorry, but thank him very much anyway.”

A year after leaving Steeleye Span, he recorded his masterpiece, Shearwater (1972). This superb album bears the traces of his time with the electric folk supergroup; Maddy Prior guests on one track, Betsy Bell And Mary Gray, which makes you wish they were still recording together. There are two near-misses for me on Shearwater: I Was A Young Man and Outlandish Knight, but the obvious pick is the epic masterwork, and one of Martin Carthy’s favourite numbers, Famous Flower Of Serving Men. A ripping intro, dramatic, insistent, “My mother did me deadly spite, for she sent thieves in the dark of the night”, bloody murder, a hypnotic song and the very best of the tradition.

The 2005 CD of Shearwater contains three tracks from John Peel’s radio show in 1972. From David Suff’s notes for the CD: “At the time, Peel and his producer, John Walters, had become besotted by Carthy’s reading of Famous Flower Of Serving Men, working up one of their famous tall stories claiming that each time Martin did a session for the Radio 1 show the song had grown by a verse or two!” Carthy was to re-record Famous Flower for his 2004 album, Waiting For Angels.

From another favourite, Crown Of Horn (1976), it was a tussle between The Bedmaking, Geordie (which I love) and the longest track on the album, Willie’s Lady, with his trademark guitar and perfect phrasing: “It was a particularly happy stroke of genius from Ray Fisher (Archie’s sister) to marry the song to the tune of the Breton air “The Song of Cider” and it is with her permission that I have recorded it.”

My last choice is the flipside of Martin Carthy with a boisterous tale of a pact with the devil that he learned from A.L. Lloyd. The Devil And The Feathery Wife from the 1982 album Out Of The Cut has John Fitzpatrick on a rousing accordion and Martin’s perfect enunciation and intonation: “I’ll make you a bargain, the devil he cried, It’s a bargain you just couldn’t miss, you bring me a beast at seven years’ end, I’ll try to say what it is.” I saw him perform it once on a TV show but damned if I can remember where or when or find it on the net, but it was great! It doesn’t appear to be from the 2008 BBC 4 Sessions Martin Carthy & Friends at Union Chapel which you can find in its entirety on good ‘ol youtube.

Merric Davidson


Last word from the man himself:

“Why do I still play folk clubs? It’s what I know. There’s an understanding there. I love the way folk clubs work. I love the fact that folk clubs over the years have allowed me to wander up blind alleys, fall flat on my face, make terrible mistakes, sound like an idiot, sound okay, struggle, learn my trade – and they’ve paid me, on the button, to do it. They’ve looked after me. Once in a while you’re going to run into somebody you’ve never heard of, who is going to blow you clean out of your socks – do something which is absolutely brilliant, sublime. They would not have a chance to air that anywhere else. That’s why I like doing folk clubs.” (Martin Carthy from “Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs” by JP Bean – Faber & Faber, 2014)


For essays on all these, and every, Martin Carthy track, including lyrics, sources, composers, timings, musicians, go to the magnificent Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music index here. You could spend several days immersed in this fantastic web resource, one thing leading to another, and before you know it, it’s tomorrow.

“Martin Carthy – arguably the greatest English folk song performer, writer, collector and editor of them all. Q Magazine


Dave Swarbrick (1941–2016)


Come Sing It Plain – a Martin Carthy fansite and blog

Martin Carthy Complete Discography

Mainly Norfolk – Martin Carthy Chronological Discography

Martin Carthy Lifetime Achievement Award BBC Folk Awards 2014

Martin Carthy short documentary BBC TV The Late Show 1993

Martin Carthy biography (iTunes)

The topper-15 tracks are in chronological order and the albums are a cross-section of a 50 year career. There is, though, still room for more toppermosts, not least on Dave Swarbrick (see above) but also Brass Monkey and Waterson:Carthy.

TopperPost #256


  1. Peter Viney
    Apr 20, 2014

    One of the great Toppermosts. Thanks to all three.
    Record Store Day 2014, yesterday – Topic released a 7” single of Martin & Eliza Carthy from their forthcoming album (June 2nd 2014), “The Moral of The Elephant” which couples Happiness with a new take on Queen of Hearts.
    A favourite Martin Carthy moment was seeing him with Billy Bragg in the Imagined Village, suddenly both going into a full Status Quo guitar hero stance.
    But even better was taking the train to Hull in the 60s, in the days of compartments. There was just me and this guy in a compartment and he asked if I minded him practising his guitar. A long time later I was still marvelling at the playing and asked him his name: Martin Carthy, on his way to play the university folk club. I already had a ticket too.
    A new “vinyl record club” just started in Poole last week, with a Dylan evening, with the promise of a professional cleaning for an LP of your choice. I’d recently bought a secondhand copy of the “Second Album” which was very hissy. I had it cleaned and we all sat and listened entranced to Lord Franklin. (For the Dylan connection … then to Bert Jansch on Nottamun Town).

  2. Andrew Shields
    Apr 20, 2014

    Just discovered a great quote from Martin Carthy where he described the first time he saw the great Irish traditional musician, Seamus Ennis, playing the uileann pipes as being like watching ‘a man wrestle with an octopus’. He also credited Ennis as being a major influence on his own decision to become a folk musician.

  3. David Lewis
    Apr 21, 2014

    Just saw him at the national folk festival at Canberra. Brilliant.

  4. Ian Ashleigh
    Apr 21, 2014

    What a fantastic story Peter, how long was the train journey, and how long did you have a 1:1 with Martin Carthy?

  5. Peter Viney
    Apr 21, 2014

    It would have been three and a half hours. London to Hull. Just the two of us. It also happened on a quiet flight from Sardinia to Genoa, where a guy had a seat for his lute. He asked if he could practise, and everybody nodded and we had a beautiful classical recital. Then getting off all the Italians asked for his autograph. I was the only one on the plane who didn’t know who he was.

  6. David Lewis
    Apr 21, 2014

    Now with a tad more time… He concluded the set I saw with Prince Heathen which was done beautifully. I also very much enjoyed Long John More. And Sir Patrick Spens is always a favourite of mine. So I’m glad he did those. And we can put the last two into my ‘wot no?’ list in this great list!

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