That the song is more important than the singer is a creed which effectively ended in America with the post-war mass marketing of folk music, freezing songs in "definitive" recordings, which had spent years travelling and developing through performance. The best example of this contradiction is Bob Dylan, who, for all his contrived authenticity and roots in centuries old tradition, has become the biggest personality cult pop music has ever seen.
Not so for Martin Carthy, the man once touted as the English Dylan, a giant in folk music circles who can nevertheless be found playing in crowded smoky pubs up and down Britain on any given evening. His wife and daughter have been nominated for three Mercury Music Awards between them (in my opinion daughter Elizaâ€™s "Anglicana" album should have beaten Dizzee Rascal to the prize this year, but the folk nomination is still a tokenistic gesture by the Mercury judges), and yet Carthy is rarely heard of outside of folk club circles.
This may be due to his ego-less approach to his vast repertoire of traditional British songs. Itâ€™s probably why in forty years playing music heâ€™s only ever written two songs (and certainly not due to a lack of songwriting talent â€“ his composition 'Company Policy' is the best Falklands song Iâ€™ve heard since 'Shipbuilding'). His voice is distinctive, a little harsh, but always suited to the timbre of the song. His guitar-playing reacts to the ebb and flow of the words, rather than dictating the pace of them. When itâ€™s not his turn to perform he sits on the floor and watches the other singers, all the while tapping a foot along.
Why, you may be asking, does this make Martin Carthy relevant today? In short, itâ€™s because of the things heâ€™s singing about. Thereâ€™s a powerful universality in the themes of the songs, taking in love and death, honour and cruelty, which transcends the centuries. 'Dominion of the Sword' (sadly missing from tonightâ€™s set) is the most pertinent comment on the post-Sept 11 world I can think of, despite having been written over three centuries ago. And Carthyâ€™s performance is mesmerising. One guy, acoustic, no amplification, with a dog at his feet: electric.