'Down South, they'd be up listening and boogying during the set and come up to me after…'
John Martyn may be nominally a folk artist, but his music knows no borders. Martyn emerged from his native Glasgow, Scotland, as a 'Celtic folkie,' but has infused into the traditional folk idiom such far-flung influences as Jamaican ska and reggae, the Mississippi delta blues of Skip James, the rebelliously probing saxophone work of John Coltrane and his own brilliant and often maverick imagination.
"Over here in Britain, John is regarded by both the critics and audiences as something of a national institution," says Rob Partridge, a former Melody Maker editor who now works with Island Records, Martyn's label. Unfortunately, Martyn's audience in America barely reaches cult proportions. but its devotion was strong enough to wait out a nearly three year hiatus Martyn took from touring and recording.
Part of the reason for their devotion can be found on So Far, So Good (Island), a compilation of cuts from three of the 10 albums Martyn has recorded solo or with his wife Beverly. The album is a perfect introduction to Martyn's inspired diversity, from the classic acoustic strains of 'May You Never' (recently covered by Eric Clapton on Slowhand) to the sultry, jazz-like 'Bless The Weather' or the crackling electricity of 'Glistening Glyndebourne.'
Whether playing his acoustic guitar with unadorned simplicity, or creating steamy, rippling pastiches by plugging it into an Echoplex, John's instrumental work bristles with genius. His slurred, whiskey-throated vocals roll like the walk of a drunken sailor and embody a soul and passion rare in music.
The classic problem with genius has always been recognition in one's own time, but Martyn remains guardedly confident while steering his own course. "I don't mind, as long as I get to play for people," he says in his lively Scottish brogue. "My music is not bad music, so half the battle's won."
He also has some good warriors on his side, including Island owner Chris Blackwell, who produced One World -Martyn's first new lp in three years- and Eric Clapton who had John open his recent tour as a special guest. Opening a huge arena for a big act can be rough going for any artist, but Martyn showed audiences how one man and one guitar can sound like anything from a rumbling blues band to a heavenly choir of angels.
The tour provided some interesting reactions for a 'folk' artist. "I don't want to sound snobbish or anything, but it's always blacks who get off on my music," says Martyn. "Down South, invariably they'd be up listening and boogying during the set, and come up to me after and say Hey man... Strange..."
In fact, some of the material on One World reflects Martyn's fascination with Caribbean sounds, like 'Big Muff', a tune co-written with noted reggae producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry. The album also marks a departure for Martyn, being the first time he was not involved in the production end.
"Having made the decision to let Chris produce it, he did just that and would come in, play my tracks an split. I had veto power, but let him take the reins. It came out different than I expected, a good bit sweeter and gentler," says John of the album's subtle electric touch. "So the next one will probably be very electric."
"Although I don't know," he adds, with a self-effacing grin, "Because after playing electric through this whole tour, I'm now feeling, in my own perverse fashion, that I'd like to play more acoustic now."
Whatever John Martyn decides to do, he will probably be ahead of his time, as usual. He had the foresight, conscious or not, to record his second album with wife Beverly -Stormbringer!- in Woodstock during the magic summer of 1969. The set albums which followed set the pace for an English folk movement coming to terms with modernity, though his constant inclusion of more traditionally based songs kept him close to his origins.
Martyn considers himself someone who "never intended to be a professional musician," and considers music his art, not his business. So it was no surprise in 1975 that he found the rigor of touring too much, and retired from his inspiration at musical fountainheads like Jamaica, and generally redefined his approach to a 'career.'
Today, Martyn says of his refreshed outlook, "I'm kind of enjoying it. When I stop enjoying it, I'll stop... But I don't think I will. I love to play. If I do a good gig... it makes me feel good, justified, warm and clean inside. That's music, and that [buzz] is mine, and nobody can take it away..."
But anyone can enjoy it, and the magic of John's music is truly infectious. Now touring the States on a club tour, Martyn is proving it once again. As they say, genius never rests.
The Sarasota Journal was a Florida based daily afternoon newspaper published from 1952 to 1982. This story ran on page 7.