John Martyn was born in 1948 into a Scots musical family of two light opera singers who separated shortly after his birth. Brought up by a close relative, most of his childhood was spent in urban Glasgow: weekends were spent with his father in the countryside and yearly holidays were spent on houseboats with his mother in the South of England.
This patchwork background undoubtedly influenced the young Martyn creating a life long fascination with much of the lyrical and musical imagery to come. John first picked up the guitar at 14 and catered for the local folk scene. Three years later he met The Incredible String Band who he recollects 'had very interesting ideas and were very funky players in those days'. At the time John's musical ideas and his playing were very influenced by guitarist Davy Graham and the black musicians of the Stax and Chess labels, people like Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Gary Davis, Snooks Eaglin and Big Bill Broonzy. Friend Hamish Imlach introduced him to the possibilities of combining traditional Gaelic folk music with contemporary instrumentation drawing on a range of folk and ethnic styles from ragtime to blues and country. Hamish, John admits, 'was a mine of information on these things, and simultaneously introduced me to socialism because that was the driving force at the time. Folk music was 'folk' music, it was for the people and quite deliberately so. Through the socialist aspect of the music I was introduced to a lot of great black musicians. We used to pool or money and bring over these guys, like Gary Davis, to play the clubs in Glasgow, that was the only way we could hear them.'
Another formative influence in the early days was Clive Palmer who ran the Incredible Folk Club and founded their String Band. 'Those were wild times and Clive was a remarkable man, a great musician and down to earth, absolutely no bullshit, taught me lots of things to play.'
Moving down to London in 1968, John joined Chris Blackwell's Island label. The early contact with West Indian music provided a useful source of ideas, but this was also John's first encounter with Rock and Roll. 'The first rock and rollers that I really liked were Free. I had never heard the blues played by white boys like that. They were amazing - I was really moved, genuinely moved, no-one else had such an effect. It was insane, they were so young, absolutely no-one has ever come close to that kind of music. It was a kind of cross between musical integrity and genuine soul.'
John in fact played guitar on one of Free's guitarist Paul Kossoff's best known records and Kossoff returned the favour later, by playing in John's band for the (at first privately pressed) 'Live at Leeds' album.
'London Conversation' was released in 1968. Although firmly rooted in the folk tradition it also contained touches of remarkable lyric ingenuity and jazzy instrumentation which set him apart, at the time, from his contemporaries. Basically an acoustic album, John was listening to Bert Jansch and Davy Graham at the time and it reflects Martyn's basic British approach to playing, steering a away from a flashier American style. The story continues via his second album, 'The Tumbler' (also released in 1968) on to 'Stormbringer', which is also now available on CD.
"With thanks to Brendan Quyle"