Martin Carthy,
(Mooncrest, 1972;
Ryko, 2005)

I first heard of British folk legend Martin Carthy in the autumn of 2003. He was coming to my hometown of Cannington, Ontario, for a concert with the celebrated freestyle guitarist Don Ross. At the time, I had no idea who Carthy was or how much I would grow to enjoy his music. I never attended the concert for reasons of musical ignorance, something I've regretted since.

In March of the following year, I received the CD Troubadours of British Folk, Vol. I and was surprised to discover that he had a song on the disc, "The Famous Flower of Serving Man." Initially, I did not like it all and thought it overlong (9 minutes, and 20). But the more I listened, the more it grew on me. The turning point came one evening when the track came on it held me almost hypnotized. From then on, I loved it.

Carthy has been recording music since the '60s. He has been a member of Steeleye Span, the Albion Band, Blue Murder and Brass Monkey. Shearwater was recorded in 1971, not long after he left Steeleye for the first time. It's a return to his basic folk roots. The majority of the tracks are a cappella, and he has the right voice to be able to pull it off comfortably. The remaining tracks contain his guitar, which complements his voice perfectly.

The songs on Shearwater have a dark undertone. Most of the songs (all traditional) tell tales of murder, revenge and death, with the exception of central track "John Blunt," which has enough slyness to grant it some brief humorous relief.

"I Was a Young Man" is about a naive man who marries young and unwisely to an overbearing woman whom he cannot handle and wishes death to "come take my wife." Carthy's strumming guitar adds an intensity and almost exhausting feel to the song. Next, "Banks of Green Willow" is perhaps the most tragic song on the album. A young woman gets pregnant by a sea captain, who then begs her to sail across the ocean with him -- only to drown her at the first sign of bad weather due to a sailor's superstition. The vocal style on this song is slow, calm and concentrated, adding to the overall sadness.

"Handsome Polly-O" is simply about unrequited love of an army captain for a maid; he grows sick and dies after her scornful rejection. Appropriately, the song is sung with upbeat militaryesque vocals. Then, "Outlandish Knight" tells the story of a girl who is propositioned by a strange young man who talks her into taking her father's money and running away with him. He turns out to be both a thief and murderer, but the maiden outsmarts him and kills him instead. This track contains some of the most complex guitar licks on the album.

"He Called for a Candle," about a sailor and his pregnant girl, allows a brief reprieve from the disc's overall mayhem of the rest of the album, as does "John Blunt," in which an old couple takes stubbornness to new extremes over a bet that whoever speaks the first word will go downstairs to lock the front door while their house is being invaded by greedy travelers. It's the lightest track on the album, and the vocals and guitar are suitably humorous and wistfully upbeat.

In "Lord Randall," the anxious guitar intensifies as the song progresses. A man discovers he's been poisoned by his evil stepmother and leaves instructions with his mother on how he wants his death avenged. (As a side note, in most other versions of this song, it is his lover who poisons him.) "William Taylor" is another revenge song, about a girl who dresses as a man and joins the army in order to seek her enlisted lover, only to discover he is engaged to marry another woman.

"The Famous Flower of Serving Man" is easily my favorite song of Carthy's. This epic tale of revenge is about a young woman named Eleanor, whose husband and baby are slain by vicious thieves hired by her jealous mother. She cuts off her hair, dresses as a man and travels off to get a job at the king's court. The king one day while hunting sees a "milk-white hind" that leads him to the graves. The spirit of the murdered husband appears to the king as a dove and relates to the king Eleanor's tragic story, and the king takes her revenge. The song feels almost bardic in nature, its repetitiveness almost hypnotic and magical.

Maddy Prior joins Carthy for "Betsy Bell & Mary Grey, a song about two daughters of Scottish gentry who were best friends. When the great plague of 1666 broke out they built themselves a safe bower with a supply of food. Unfortunately, a plague-infected lover joined them and they died.

All in all, I was more than satisfied with this British folk album, which is now numbered among my favorites. It is more basic and less instrumental than previous albums I've heard from Carthy. These songs sound right coming from his tongue, imbuing them with the proper amount of emotion and conviction. It is, at times, both simple and complex.

(An extended version of this CD contains five additional songs.)

by Stefan Abley
24 June 2006

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