Monday, July 31, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 036: Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick: Life and Limb

You can’t contain the breadth, intensity, diversity, and astonishingly consistent high quality of Martin Carthy’s 45-year recording career on a single disc. And, even if you could, what side of Carthy would you emphasize to the detriment of others? The traditional singer, who translated the insights of source singers like Sam Larner and collectors like Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl to practically everyone in the Brit-folk revival? The magnificent guitarist, who, more than any other folkie except possibly Davy Graham, figured out a way to translate the stuttering, herky-jerky, heartbeat life-blood of traditional piping, fiddling, and singing to his loopy, percussive, and utterly idiosyncratic guitar style? The bandleader, whose Brass Monkey lineup found a way to synthesize village brass bands, folk choirs, and rock ‘n’ roll in a wonderfully hairy and funky acoustic lineup? The prototypical folkie-turned-rocker, who was the trad-music cornerstone of Steeleye Span (and which band went straight down the tubes, in terms of quality, when he left)? The slyly anonymous composer, almost all of whose “traditional” songs contain added texts by Carthy which are even more powerful than the original fragments? The road warrior, willing to hold 10,000 Frenchmen in the palm of his hand at Lorient during a solo performance of Skewball, and play the next night at a church-hall folk club? The avatar of political folk-song, whose fantastic musical taste led him to Leon Rosselson and the world of radical contemporary folk-song before anyone else? The brilliant accompanist and duet-partner, who, with both fiddler Dave Swarbrick and button box player John Kirkpatrick, redefined the possibilities of fiddle tunes and Morris tunes, making utterly contemporary and very powerful music?

You can’t contain Carthy’s brilliance on a single CD. So what do you do: go for quantity, with the excellent (but rather eclectic) 4-disc set Carthy Chronicles (another of Free Reed’s masterful boxes), or for a “classic” single disc like Crown of Horn, or for one of the great duo discs with Swarb like Prince Heathen? How do you account for the great, irreplaceable songs which are scattered through the other discs? And, how can you have any adequate representation of Carthy that omits his titanic version of The Famous Flower of Serving Men, which brings together his fantastic idiosyncratic vocal phrasing, his interpolation and expansion of traditional sources, the spitting venom of his percussive guitar in this tale of jealousy, murder and revenge? To say nothing of the greatest riff in folk-rock, a stuttering, tumbling pentatonic line which Fairport pinched as the “big rock lick” in Matty Groves but which Carthy casually tosses off in endless spinning permutations under his contrapuntal vocal?

Well, you can’t. So you have to make a choice that some things will be omitted while others are included (if traditional music teaches you anything, it’s that life is flawed and choices have consequences). So my choice, today, is the masterful live duo with Dave Swarbrick, Life and Limb. Tomorrow’s choice might be different—and you’d probably have to pry my copy of Carthy Chronicles from my cold, dead iPod. Anyway:

Swarb was a Geordie from Birmingham, but with Scots-Irish roots. He played in ceilidh bands (and still continues an association with the fantastic vamping pianist Beryl Marriott), but in 1966 teamed up with Carthy in a duo that virtually redefined the playing of trad English music. Couple Carthy’s astonishing detective- and reconstruction-work with songs, his fantastic piping-and-droning guitar, and his dry wit with Swarb’s loopy, sliding fiddle and irrepressible singing and stage patter, and the telepathy they almost instantly developed, and you have the template they’ve worked with for the past 40 years. But, as with so many musicians who maintain decades-long associations—and who are working in musical traditions that have some spine and longevity to them—you have recent reunion discs that are better than anything they’ve previously recorded: the 90s-and-later discs really are better than the “heyday” discs of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

So—Life and Limb. Swarb’s health has been terrible since the ‘80s—the archetypal image of Swarb was of him vamping on fiddle, singing, eyes closed, into a microphone, with a cigarette hanging out of his month—and he eventually had both lungs replaced to counter his emphysema (the Daily Telegraph published a premature obituary and Swarb gleefully quoted Mark Twain’s “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”). This disc, recorded in 1990, captures the duo pre-surgery but post-reunion—two old friends playing with astonishing empathy, telepathy, and virtuosity, with an air of casual command that makes aging seem pretty attractive (for another example of same, see the Fierce Old Lions of the Planxty reunion DVD, in response to which, paraphrasing The Commitments, “I’ll bet Lunasa are shittin’ themselves”).

The disc touches on some—but not all—of what made (and makes) this duo great: Carthy’s definitive version (as so many of his versions are) of Child Ballad #3, the female-highwayman-in-disguise story of Sovay; the understatedly-brutal political satire of The Begging Song (another of Carthy’s rewrites out of folk tradition, updating the traditional song with new lyrics about the Thatcherite horror) and of his own song A Question of Sport (which uses the language of British pub quizzes to describe Thatcher’s "banality of evil" response to apartheid’s torture policies); the wonderfully loopy, spinning-and-twisting instrumentals including The Pepperpot and Carthy’s March (the latter a Swarb composition, a dreamed tribute to Carthy); and the closer: the seven-plus minutes of their extended workout on Byker Hill, which nearly accomplishes the impossible task of encapsulating everything that was (and is) great about this duo. It’s a tune that appeared previously in their repertoire as both an instrumental and a song (a great funny miner’s lyric in 9/8) and was always the vehicle for improvisation.

It begins with a beautiful guitar solo in more-or-less free time (or, as Carthy learned from Bert Lloyd, “in One”) which recalls nothing so much as Keith Jarrett on one side and the great Malagasay guitarist D’Gary on the other—but it’s just Carthy…free. Then he goes into the groove, in a mode stunningly distant from where he’d gone (and I’ll bet three quarters of the audience had no idea the song was coming) and begins to sing:

If I had another penny
I would have another gin
I would have the piper play
The “Bonny Lass from Byker Hill"...

with Swarb’s fiddle dancing along every step of the way. They go into the solo, and it’s like listening to a great Afro-Cuban band, where everybody in the band is hearing the clave (or, in the case of Carthy/Swarb, the “One”) but nobody needs to play it—it’s that much part of their shared heartbeat. And then, after the solos, they casually modulate up a whole step to another key—not an easy task on open-tuned guitar, let me tell you!—to take the tune out. Only when the room erupts in applause do you realize how much they’ve held the audience hushed throughout the tune. It’s a performance that captures the guts, balls, and fierce joy that Carthy and Swarb found in the working-class roots of traditional music—and the world they opened to the rest of us.

A year or so ago: our old friends the Right Reverend Colonel Lemual B. Rikkitts and Dr. “Pappy Lilt” Masbrow, specialists in “Appalachian Murder Ballads and Celtic Songs of Love and Death,” are in town for a show. There’s been a lot of hanging out, a lot of hysterical quotation of dialog from O Brother Where art Thou? and High Fidelity, biscuits "and a orange" for breakfast, and some great music. The night before they leave, Dharmonia asks the Rev if he's ever heard Martin Carthy. He says “no,” the Doc says “not much,” so she lays Famous Flower of Serving Men on the two of them. They listen motionless, the Doc stroking his beard and the Colonel prone on the couch, to the whole 11 minutes of the Shearwater version. At the end, after the murderous mother is consigned by her son to the flames (“and they spat and rang in her yellow hair”), they continue to sit motionless…until Pappy says “I have GOT to learn that,” and the Rev falls off the couch, moaning “Oh fuck...oh fuck...oh fuck...Why did you let me know he was that great?!?” That’s the reaction we all had—Carthy sent us all back to school and the woodshed. And he humbled us.

His music is an entire world. He may have started out as a folk-revivalist, but (like Keith Richards’ lifelong accomplishment with Muddy Waters) his dedication was true, and the tradition survives in no small part because of him.

You can live inside Carthy's music. There's a whole world there.

[h/t to the Rev for the corrected dialog]


Kev Boyd said...

Brilliant assessment of the great man. I like your final comment that "You can live inside Carthy's music"... reminds me of seeing him a few years ago where he did "Prince Heathen", that utterly compelling song that's stayed in his repertoire for 40 years. He said someone had once described the song as "like being in your own bloodstream", which I think could be used to describe a lot of his music.

Chris said...

Thanks kindly for the feedback--Carthy's music only gets better for me every year.