I felt privileged to have a nice long chat on the phone to Martin Carthy the other day, in preparing a piece for the Church Times to celebrate the music of Sydney Carter, a decade after his death (on 13 March 2004). The article is set to appear in next week's issue. Various contributors (including the Iona Community's John Bell and the poet-broadcaster Stewart Henderson as well as folks from publisher Stainer & Bell and others of Sydney's friends and collaborators) say a lot of good stuff about this most singular of songwriters. For Sydney Carter (as Martin Carthy underlined to me), God and the devil, folk and politics, protest and devotion were 'all of a piece'. Lord of the Dance and One More Step Along the World I Go are still among the most-requested wedding hymns, still often sung in schools, but his back catalogue bears revisiting because it's stock full of works which are in Carthy's words, 'astonishing'.
I'm chuffed that the Church Times supported my idea of trying to reawaken people's awareness of these songs and his unique approach to hymnody. Note the subtitle of the album, here: 'carols and ballads', not 'hymns' or 'praise songs' - although they are deeply devotional they are distinctive in voicing the faith and doubts of ordinary people in everyday, but greatly poetic, phrases. Carter does not shrink from grappling the most difficult questions about God, life and faith, and that's perhaps why so many of his songs sadly remain unsung in churches. There's a great playfulness in Carter's songs, not simply satire (though he was accomplished at that as a writer for revues). Take 'One More Step' for instance: "Keep me travelling along with you". It's sung so often on the way out of weddings and the ‘you’ in the title could be your partner, it could be God. Martin Carthy is in no doubt, though: "Substantially it’s God. That’s the nice thing about Sydney’s songs. It could be interpreted different ways. He wouldn’t mind if you did that. But he’s talking about God."