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Martin Carthy, folk music and lute songs

April 27, 2011

This is a short blog post; an offering to atone for our excessively long absence prior to our last posting.

Featuring a discussion about Martin Carthy may seem like a stretch for devotees of early music, since his style is generally considered to fall into the category of ‘folk’ rather than ‘art’ music.  But we attempt to keep our eyes and ears open to intelligent insights that filter into our collective consciousness from any quarter.

Actually, Martin Carthy should be respected and revered as an important pioneer of the early music revival for his significant work in dusting off and performing ancient ballads from the British Isles.  Our reason: We believe the ballad tradition has much more connection with the idiom of lute songs than, for instance, extrovert arias excerpted from operas of Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

We know there was a significant cross-fertilization of broadside ballads and early English lute songs.  Surviving 16th century printed and manuscript sources of poetry from the British Isles indicate a rather free approach to accompaniments, identifying optional tunes that were commonly known at the time.  This is really no different from the oral transmission of ballads with their freely adapted tunes.

While we adhere to historical modes of performance that are more in line with today’s approach to early music, we also embrace the directness of performers of folk music.  Lute songs are much more relevant to audiences of the 21st century if they are given a more direct transmission, rather than treating them like museum pieces on display and not to be touched.

Martin Carthy was interviewed by Ed Vulliamy of The Observer, a feature that ran Sunday 17 April 2011, on the occasion of Carthy’s approaching 70th birthday.  We recommend that you read the interview but we would like to highlight without commentary a few worthwhile quotes:

“I regard tradition as progressive,” he says, “and a traditional song as a progressive force, because it is concerned with the continuity of things.”

“The older I have got, the more the songs have become three-dimensional. They’re not words set to pretty tunes. You are being told something about people. Things that are wicked, naughty, true, funny. About what human beings do to each other, and it never changes.”

[Traditional music] “is not an archive. If you see it as that, it becomes like a butterfly in a glass case. Folk music has to live and breathe. I’m not interested in heritage – this stuff is alive, we must claim it, use it.”

“That’s what folk music is: the intuitive nature of the whole thing among people who love messing about with stuff and coming up with something else to keep the continuity going; people who aren’t intimidated by how venerable it is. A song cannot survive if it is not being played – it is either played or it perishes.”

And, finally, a notable quote from the interviewer, Ed Vulliamy:

“Good folk music in general, and Martin Carthy’s songs in particular, are the antidote to, the diametric opposite of, our postmodern world of digital cacophony, crisis in concentration, library closures and hyper-materialist phantasmagoria. “

3 Comments
  1. I agree 100 per cent. When playing Scottish lute music in Scotland, few people regard it as historical music. There is an easy connection over the time gap. Getting the same reaction from a Francesco fantasia was more difficult, but not impossible. We need to connect on the human level of shared experience, the joy, pain, suffering and wonder of life. We are still out on the Savannah, albeit with headphones on, listening to Mignarda…as I was yesterday. Bliss.

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 5.26: Folk music – Art music | Unquiet Thoughts

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