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Martin Carthy brings inspirational folk music to St David's Hall

martin carthy 6The performance took place in the third floor lounge bar of St David’s Hall, with audience members sat at tables, some standing by the bar.

It was typical of Martin Carthy’s informality.

Despite being the folk artist credited with powering (often seemingly by himself) the folk revival movement of the 1950s and 60s, Martin shows the same sense of humility and worldliness that has drawn in audiences for five decades.

He was dressed in a worn winter overcoat, colourful scarf and holding a battered guitar case when I met him and fiddle player Dave Swarbrick after the performance.

Though a respectable 72 years old, Martin has the liveliness and enthusiasm of a much younger man, especially when it comes to playing in front of live audiences. “People have given me the privilege of performing in front of them, finding out how it works in front of them,” he said.

“There is nothing like the electricity that comes off a crowd that close. That’s why I stick to folk clubs.”

Despite being responsible for inspiring the meteoric careers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Martin has remained stubbornly unwilling to cash in on his reputation, preferring cellars, pubs and folk clubs to the stadiums today’s folk inspired artists like Mumford and Sons prefer:

“I’m not moved by them but that doesn’t mean they’re rubbish, that means I just don’t get it. But what I don’t like (and this isn’t down to them) is being measured by the idea they can do a stadium and that’s nothing to do with music.”

martin carthy 5I don’t understand why you’d want to sing a song that far away from your audience.”

When awarded an MBE in 1998 Martin almost didn’t accept it. But this award, like the flurry of those awarded by Radio 2 at the Folk Awards in 2005, 2007 and 2008, were recognition for his role in rediscovering English folk’s past triumphs as much as for taking the genre in new directions.

Despite releasing 10 solo albums, it was during Carthy’s association with Dave Swarbrick and later Norma Waterson that he produced some of his best work.

Even today, Swarbrick’s complex fiddle melodies and Martin’s percussive guitar continue to enrapture audiences.

But fame has it’s drawbacks as Carthy found out in 1966 when he released his adaptation of Scarborough Fair, only to see his arrangement appear as the first track the Simon and Garfunkel album Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme’.

This caused a rift between the two performers that was not healed until 1998, when Simon invited Carthy to perform onstage at the Apollo.

martin carth 3I questioned Carthy on the issue he was rueful: “I was very happy to be a victim. Victimhood is warming but it’s rubbish. Scarborough Fair was a traditional song and he never stole it from me.

Because of folk’s roots in a traditional culture where songs were made to be passed on, there was always a rapid and lively exchange of ideas.

“The thing Simon pointed out – which I think was always true – he said he discovered when he was on the folk scene going round the all folk clubs on the train.

“He said that if anybody had an idea we all pounced on it because it would help you improve as a guitar player.”

Martin Carthy will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award next Wednesday at the Radio 2 Folk awards 2014 held at the Royal Albert Hall, London.