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A man plays a guitar.
Martin Carthy. Photo courtesy of Martin Carthy.

Homegrown Plus: Martin Carthy, Master Folksinger and Guitarist from England

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Welcome back to Homegrown Plus! We’re continuing to place the 2021 series of Homegrown Plus online, after interrupting it to premiere the 2022 series right here on the blog. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here.) We’re continuing the series with Martin Carthy, one of the best known and most critically acclaimed musicians performing traditional songs in England. Like other blogs in the Homegrown Plus series, this one includes a concert video and a video interview with the featured performer, plus links and connections to Library of Congress collections.

A man plays the guitar
Martin Carthy by Takahiro Hirono. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Martin Carthy has been a leading figure in the revival of English folk music since the 1960s. He has been a member of many iconic formations, including the duo of Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, the a cappella harmony group The Watersons, the pioneering electric folk-rock groups Steeleye Span and the Albion Band, the groundbreaking folk and brass combo Brass Monkey, and the acoustic folk groups Waterson: Carthy and Wood Wilson Carthy. He is also one of the most influential solo artists in folk music, with a guitar style emulated by practically all English folk guitarists since the 1970s. His versions of many traditional folksongs have become standards in the revival. Martin has received every honor and accolade given for folk music in England, and has been awarded an MBE for services to Folk Music, roughly equivalent to receiving a National Heritage Fellowship in the United States.

Martin Carthy has also been influential in America: it was Martin who taught Paul Simon the traditional ballad “Scarborough Fair” in the 1960s. He also befriended Bob Dylan during Dylan’s trip to England in December 1962-January 1963, and Dylan learned songs from Carthy and other English performers; Carthy’s version of “Scarborough Fair” is a clear influence on Dylan’s songs “Girl from the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” He has influenced innumerable other American performers, from Rufus and Martha Wainwright to his old friend Jody Stecher, whose Homegrown concert premiered the same day as Martin’s and will be blogged very soon!

For his concert, Martin chose his current favorites from his vast repertoire of songs and ballads, and with the technical help of our mutual friends at Falcon Audio Visual Arts put together a fine concert video.  Watch it in the player below!

The Homegrown conversation wasn’t the first time I had interviewed Martin. Back in the early 1990s I wrote liner notes for a compilation album of his solo work, and we corresponded a bit at the time. In 1996 I interviewed current and former members of Steeleye Span for an article in Dirty Linen magazine, which also became the text of the band’s 1997 tour programme; for that, I taped an interview with him in Philadelphia. In 1999 I interviewed him again and wrote a separate cover story on him. But that did make it over twenty years since our last interview! We spoke about the history of his career and his approach to traditional songs. And since there was so much to talk about, we did the interview in two installments. Find the first part immediately below

[Transcript of Part 1]

The second part of my interview with Martin Carthy is in the player below.

[Transcript of Part 2]

Collection Connections and Links

Here you’ll find links to Martin Carthy and other relevant sites online, as well as some of the most interesting Library of Congress collection items connected to the songs in his concert video.

You can visit Martin on the web at this link.

Rob Van Sante of Falcon Audio Visual Arts produced the concert in Whitby, England. Find them at this link.

Martin’s version of “The Bedmaking” comes mainly from Marina Russell. You can find Frank Purslow’s handwritten copy of H.E.D. Hammond’s original manuscript, taken down from Mrs. Russell’s singing, among other collected variants of this song, at this link on the website of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Henry Hills’s version of “The Whale Catchers” is so unusual that folklorist Steve Roud, who has compiled the most advanced index of traditional English songs, assigns it a unique number: there are no other songs he considers to be versions of the same folksong type. However, W. Percy Merrick, who collected it, considered Hills to be singing a version of “The Greenland Whale Fishery.” Alan Lomax collected a very different version of that song from Asel Trueblood, which you can hear at this link.

Martin Carthy. Courtesy of Martin’s agency, Alan Bearman Music.

“A Sailor by My Right” is about a sailor haunted by the ghost of his abandoned lover, and is sometimes known as “The Dreadful Ghost.” One version from AFC collections was written down from the singing of Alexander Robb by James Madison Carpenter. Although Carpenter did record a lot of audio from Robb, it seems he never got this song, or else the cylinder didn’t survive. The typescript can be found at this link.  This song is also a close cousin to the version of “Pretty Polly” sung for Alan Lomax by Fred Carriere in 1938. On the recording at this link, you’ll hear Carriere sing it, and even claim to have written it, but don’t believe him; it’s thoroughly traditional and was written before he was born!

Ralph Vaughan Williams is a beloved composer of English classical music, and also an important folksong collector and arranger. The Library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is called the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in his honor. Over at their website, you can see Vaughan Williams’s own manuscripts relating to Martin’s song “Lovely Joan.” Find those and other manuscripts relating to the song at this link.

Martin heard “The Dream of Napoleon” from Sam Larner, and credits Larner with inspiring him to be a folksinger. You can hear Larner’s own singing of “The Dream of Napoleon” at the link!

Martin Carthy’s closing song is “Sir Patrick Spens,” a classic ballad with a thrilling storyline involving a royal marriage, betrayal, and shipwreck. The song goes back at least to the seventeenth century, and was widely published in poetry collections without music. Martin mentions in the concert that he knew the words even as a child but for many years was unable to find a melody. The song did survive in oral tradition in Scotland, where James Madison Carpenter collected it a few years before Martin was born. But Carpenter never published his collection, so Martin was never able to see it, and eventually adopted a tune he learned from his friend Nic Jones. Jones learned the tune from the book “Ballads of Britain” by John Goss, which you can look up at this link in the Library of Congress catalog.

Meanwhile, the Carpenter collection came to AFC in 1978, and has recently been placed online by our good friends at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. So now we can all see Carpenter’s transcriptions and hear his cylinder recordings at the this link.



As always, thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. The idea of the Homegrown Plus series is to gather concert videos, video interviews with the musicians, and connections to Library of Congress collections together in one place for our subscribers. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here!)

For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress.


  1. Wonderful, always completely enjoyed Martin Carthy’s playing.

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