Martin Carthy wasn't born into traditional folk music. Like many great artists, he had to steal his tradition -- through voracious study and imitation -- and dominate it so thoroughly that he became the model for everyone who came after him. The son of a dock-working socialist, Carthy was raised in a working-class home in East London, where the music he heard was chiefly show-tune pop -- Hoagy Carmichael and Danny Kaye. He sang in the church choir, suffered the trombone in school and finally grabbed the guitar, learning just enough to join the skiffle craze, which, strangely enough, led him to American songster Elizabeth Cotton, who, even stranger, opened the door to the British folk revival itself.Carthy is a purist, but not of the snobbish type. He has never seen electricity and rock & roll as enemies -- his work with Steeleye Span and the Albion Band and on wife Norma Waterson's masterful solo album is evidence of his open-mindedness -- but his passion for traditional songs made him into a scholar who wanted to know more folk songs, and know more about them, than any of his contemporaries. If he was going to do "Lord Randall" -- which Dylan heard and quickly turned into "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall" -- he would follow the song as far back as it would go. His genius lies in surrendering himself to the depths of folk tradition, in making himself a conduit for the rhymes, stories and melodies that know no bottom. His omnivorous guitar playing, like his singing, preserves the bend, creak and hard angles of history, all those marks of having passed through the trials, terrors and joys of centuries. In other words, his music embodies mystery -- which is the most difficult and elusive tradition of all.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.