Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Aristocrats: A Pair of Kings from Martin Carthy

Martin Carthy is one of the key figures in English folk music. He was one of the founding members of Steeleye Span. He later was part of the Albion Band. And, by marriage to Norma, he became part of the first family of English folk, the Watersons. But it is his solo work that really makes the case for his importance. Carthy is a tireless researcher who is devoted to preserving English folk traditions, and the versions of many songs that he pieced together from song fragments he found in his studies have become the definitive versions of these songs. Carthy is also a fine singer and instrumentalist. He often plays guitar, but can also be heard on dulcimer and other strings.

Martin Carthy: King Henry


In addition to the version heard here, Carthy also recorded King Henry with Steeleye Span. And yes, this is another of those English folk songs with pre-Christian elements. King Henry goes hunting, and kills the finest deer anyone has ever seen. After a great feast, he and his court retire for the evening. At midnight, a howling wind, followed immediately by the shaking of the earth, announce the imminent arrival of a supernatural being. This proves to be an impossibly ugly female giant. She demands that King Henry kill and feed her his best horse, his hunting hounds, and his hunting falcons. Finally she demands that he “lie with her” until morning. When they awaken, she has been magically transformed into a beautiful woman who presumably becomes his queen.

Tales of human nobles encountering extremely ugly females who transform into beautiful women abound in English folklore, particularly in the earliest forms of the Arthurian tales. A famous example is Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. The ugly woman is the goddess of sovereignty, and the noble must mate with her to truly become king. In King Henry, it seems clear that the deer that the king hunted was one of hers. In addition, the first food she demands involves the sacrifice of a horse. In pre-Christian times, the sacrifice of a horse was an essential part of the rituals a new king would perform upon assuming the throne.

Martin Carthy: King Knapperty


King Knapperty is an entirely different matter. The tale of maiden who must wed an impossibly ugly king, it is played purely for laughs. It is possible that this song originated as a kind of spoof of tales like King Henry; it turns everything about King Henry completely on its head, and has no ritual significance that I can recognize.

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