I've been hopping around the five-plus hours* of this boxed set for the past few days. Way too much to attempt to work through it in linear fashion. The fantastic booklet that comes with the set already had two bookmarks in it from previous visits.
It's very easy for me to get misty-eyed about Martin Carthy, to project him as a source of some deep sense of cultural identity within me. The corrective to that is to remember those that came before him, and those that have come since. In the booklet, it says that Carthy decided to accept his MBE as a tribute to his "source singers" like Sam Larner and Bert Lloyd (who was the dad of someone at his school!). And now I think that people like Alasdair Roberts — well, just Alasdair Roberts specifically, drawing on a different set of source singers like Stanley Robertson, Duncan Williamson and Jock Duncan — could end up being even better than Carthy … if only it were possible to make a living at doing this stuff full-time as Carthy was able to do.
Free Reed have made a habit of producing stunning boxed sets like this, and now I'm on their mailing list, I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from clicking "add to basket". There was no way I could resist this one. I can't remember where I came across it — maybe it was at the Sidmouth Folk Festival in 2001. Free Reed are based in Belper in Derbyshire, just down the road from other radical folkies like John Tams and at least one of Coope Boyes and Simpson. I think of them slightly enviously every time I go through Belper on the London to Sheffield train: it's probably my favourite bit of countryside as seen from a train window.
The CDs themselves hop around quite a lot, imaginatively organised by themes that run through Carthy's career (and also overlap with each other). It's a fantastic range of recordings, with album versions outnumbered by those collated from live and session performances, many of them exclusive to this collection. Sometimes this means there's a bit of audio whiplash, jumping between soundboard recording of Steeleye Span at some seventies festival to sixties group appearance on TV to solo studio album from the nineties. Then again, if you've got five hours of music, you don't want all the tracks to flow together seamlessly because it becomes a snoozefest.
*It doesn't even stop with the CDs and booklet, because there's a CD-ROM and other extras. I feared would the CD-ROM would no longer run on my Mac, but happily it's written in HTML rather than Macromedia Director. The videos there have found their way onto Youtube. Here's the full set (and more here), of which this is perhaps the most revealing of Carthy's self image:
There's a family tree by the legendary Pete Frame, which, when it reaches Waterson Carthy, is annotated "Good Lord, this has suddenly turned into a real family tree… never happened to me before". Evidently he hasn't done trees for Tangerine Dream or Linda Thompson recently.
Of course, you can always wish for more, and I'd love to read the Martin Carthy equivalent of Bob Dylan's Chronicles. I suspect that's not going to happen though; he's not sufficiently self-important. The pay-off is that we can still get to see him playing intimate venues and folk clubs. I missed him last Saturday at Deptford's Kit and Cutter, but he's back there in May, at East Dulwich's The Goose is Out twice next year. Plus we have tickets to see him at the Green Note in February.
Order direct from Free Reed
MusicBrainz entry for this album
Wikipedia entry for this album
Rate Your Music entry for this album
Listen to Disc 1 in part at Last.fm, Disc 2, Disc 3, Disc 4