Steve McWilliam's Guitar Site - A Musical Journey
Notes On Mike C. Martin


Michael Galvin Martin (Mike C. Martin)
Born 09/02/1954
Kiltra,
Carraig on Bannow,
Co.Wexford,
Eire
(Now living in Chester, England)
e-mail: mgm.kiltra@live.co.uk

Mike C. Martin at Sidmouth Folk Festival in 2011I spent my young life growing up in rural south east Ireland. There was no great instrumental tradition there such as existed on the west coast in counties like Donegal, Sligo, Galway or Clare, although traditional dancing and the sung ballad were strong. Both my parents danced to traditional Irish music and although there was no-one around to interest me in, or teach me, an instrument I managed to soak up the melodies and words of many a popular Irish ballad and tune listening to snatches of `Ceilidh` hour on the radio.

In the late 1950`s and early 60`s rock and roll was becoming huge all over the globe including the little patch where I lived in the `back of beyond'. My older brothers Gene and Con, and their friends, had just started to imitate the trends across the water in England and began sporting `teddy boy` (ducks-arse) hairstyles,`drainpipe` trousers, and `winklepicker` shoes. One summer night in the early sixties when I was about seven or eight, Watty Ffrench, a friend of my brothers, brought his newly purchased guitar to our house. He came up the lane from his farm with a pure white f-hole semi-electric. It glowed in the clear moonlit evening and had a magical aura around it. Like King Arthur`s sword 'Excalibur' it emanated power, as you might imagine something from another world or dimension doing. I watched mesmerized (not allowed a 'go' of course) as they took it in turns to try and pick out some tunes by the Shadows, Duane Eddy, and popular country style tunes often played by Irish Showbands like `I`ll tell me Ma` and `Jug of Punch`. The look and twang of the guitar before me, as each of them in turn scratched out a tune with a plectrum, made an indelible impression on that part of my psyche given over to dreams and longing. I was hooked !!

On the morning of my twelfth birthday, by which time the family had emigrated to England, my Mother brought me into the front living room. The `best`one. Saved for visitors and special family occasions and where myself and my younger brother Leo were only rarely allowed in. She pointed to the big sofa where a peculiarly shaped parcel `stood` propped up amongst the cushions. (I had never recalled pestering my mother to acquire me that bit of magic I was exposed to on a moonlit night in Ireland some years before). But here it was! My heart beat very fast. ”I just saw it in the shop” she said, smiling as I tore away at the wrapping paper. By `shop` she meant the sweet shop and newsagents on the high street, not the specialist, swanky music shop found in town ! Still, here it was before me, not the splendorous white f-hole of the `night with a thousand eyes` but a little, brown, 12-fret acoustic with no name, a bowed neck, and an action upon which a professional strongman could have supplemented his finger strengthening exercise regime. My initial disappointment though was quickly replaced with feelings of elation when I nestled its small body into mine, felt along the neck, and struck my first ever notes. This was mine and we would get along somehow, someday, no matter what!

Of course, after some time spent picking out a few tunes and seeing my small soft hands begin to shred on the taut cheese cutters called strings my initial ardour began to wane. There was no-one to point the way forward with chords and an old song or two - or to find a way to lower the impossible action ! So with the tacit approval of my mother I `rested` the little brown guitar/vegetable-slicer, meaning to wait for a better learning opportunity to make itself known to me. Paid for lessons were unaffordable and so out of the question. I barely touched it again for nearly four years when at the age of fifteen going on sixteen my psyche was about to receive another profound message from the `other`.

During a Saturday bathnight session my portable radio, normally tuned to pick up the latest pop, soul, and reggae sounds, had `tuned itself` to `The Mike Raven Show`on a more rarified wavelength. He played American and British rhythm `n` blues featuring artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Alexis Corner, and Duster Bennett. On this particular night I heard my first acoustic blues and it was an Epiphany, a moment never forgotten, from where my life grew in dimension and received direction. A calling even. That acoustic blues was called `Cypress Grove Blues`…… “I`d rather be buried in some Cypress Grove, than to live way down here and be treated just so so“……… The artist was the one and only, unique and great, Nehemiah `Skip` James. Within a week I was the proud owner of `The Best of Skip James` a vinyl put out by Biograph. These were later recordings made after his `rediscovery` and comeback concert at the Newport Jazz and Blues Festival in 1963. It had Cypress Grove on and many other great songs like Special Rider, Illinois Blues, Cherry Ball, Drunken Spree, and Motherless Child Blues. I listened to this genius play and sing his incredible and unique songs over and over. And over. I had to learn how to play the Blues ! But first I had to learn how to play the Guitar !!! And so like tens of thousands of others (in the beginning I thought I was the only one championing this musical form --- HA ! ) I embarked on the journey I`m still travelling on to this day.

I`ve been trying to play the guitar for over forty years now . Doing so has provided me with lots of adventures, good and not so good, along the way. I played my first gig at the Three Magpies pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham at the tender age of seventeen, wearing the silver boots that my `manager` and schoolfriend John Mulligan insisted I put on for `glamours` sake, ..… My heart wasn't in it. Gigging? Yes.! Gigging with the silver boots? No ! John remained my friend but not my `manager` ……. He subsequently went on to play bass and keyboard with the successful New Wave Pop band `Fashion.`He was a clever lad with a lot of panache and foresight !!

Moseley Road Art School, the school we attended, produced a lot of fine musicians as well as trying to educate its pupils into a career in the Arts and Crafts field. A lot of the support and encouragement to this end came from a very gifted Art teacher and musician called John Swift. John played Guitar, Lute, and Piano and at one time played with the Ian Campbell folk group who, along with people like Ewan McColl, were in the vanguard of the folk revival in Britain in the fifties and sixties. Dave Swarbrick began his legendary career in Ian Campbell's band. Ian`s son, Alistair, and a boy called Errol Faulkner, both of later UB40 fame, were at Moseley Art during those years at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies. As well as folk and classical style Guitar and Lute, John also played the blues in a very technically accomplished style. I knew he had listened to Artists like Josh White and Leadbelly having brought some 78`s in to school for us to listen to. He told me too that he had seen Big Bill Broonzy play in Birmingham Town Hall in 1956 on what must have been the great bluesman`s last ever European tour. I hadn`t heard of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, or John Renbourn yet but if I had I`d say that their styles were in the mix somewhere as well.

In any case , to impress John Swift was to get the seal of approval, an official sanction that you were on the right track with your playing. That happened one morning before school while I was `entertaining` some fellow sixth –formers in the common room with `Police Dog Blues` a piece I`d picked up from the playing of Blind Blake (another huge influence on my playing style and early attempts at compositions). As the great man swept through the room he actually paused, albeit briefly, to listen to my playing. Wheeling round, and scratching his goatee, a flicker of a smile preceded the (now immortal) words of highest praise to my ears …… “ not bad ”. Then he was gone, his black academics cape (our teachers wore the cape and mortar in those days !) fluttering after him in the doorway.

Words of approval for our own efforts from those we admire and respect resonate long after they have been uttered. They keep you going through periods of self-doubt, when you reach the stage where you know you are never going to get to where you want to be technically, when you realise that you will never reach the heights of a virtuoso. They help you in the end, as long as you decide not to pack it all in, to renew the desire to carry on, and to discover what you can achieve with the talent you do possess.

Those words from a teacher I admired and respected, along with the support and affirmation from good friends and musician acquaintances down the years, have helped me keep going, searching for and using my own `voice` to try and express my own uniqueness in a tune, or a song, or to support and enhance the work of others when I have collaborated. Perhaps it`s that need to affirm ones own existence that drives all creative impulses. That moment when a melody, an arrangement, or a song, starts to come together does it for me. Even now !!

Some of Mike's music in tablature form can be found here !!

Mike C. Martin at Edgehill Arts Centre - 2014

Mike C. Martin at Edgehill Arts Centre - 2014


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