|One More Day/Boots Of Spanish Leather||Bootleg USA|
|Dives And Lazarus||The Bramble Briar|
|Rounding The Horn||The Bramble Briar|
|Love Never Dies||Righteousness & Humidity|
|She Slips Away||Prodigal Son|
|Never Any Good||Prodigal Son|
|Strange Affair||Purpose + Grace|
|Palaces Of Gold||Vagrant Stanzas|
|Waly Waly||Vagrant Stanzas|
|John Hardy||Ever Popular Favourites|
Contributor: Andrew Shields
In the course of a long musical career which began back in the early 1970s, Martin Simpson has established himself as one of the finest folk musicians of modern times. A superbly skilled guitarist, he is also adept on the banjo, the mandola and mandolin. On the one hand, Simpson can be seen as the natural heir to the great British folk guitarist tradition established by the giants of the genre such as Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and Nic Jones. On the other, he has proved to be equally at home working within the American folk tradition. The extent of this ease can be gauged from the fact that he has been described by Eric Bibb, no mean guitar player in his own right, as “one of the world’s finest finger-style guitarists”.
Simpson’s early and continuing interest in the banjo also means that both his repertoire and his playing style have been heavily influenced by the great American masters of that instrument, such as Dock Boggs, Frank Proffitt and Doc Walsh. To add to this collection of ‘Docs’ he has also frequently expressed his admiration for the late great guitar player, Doc Watson. Simpson has also cited the great country bluesman, Mississippi John Hurt, as one of his earliest musical heroes. Despite his almost flawless technique, however, Simpson’s playing never displays any tendency towards mere showing off or flashy virtuosity for its own sake. Instead his musical skills are invariably used in the service of the music that he is playing.
Martin Simpson’s long apprenticeship in the music business was marked by two key episodes which, in my opinion, have decisively shaped his later career. The first was his almost decade-long association as an accompanist with the great English singer, June Tabor. The breadth of Tabor’s repertoire and her skill as an interpreter of folk songs meant that this gave Simpson an ideal opportunity to acquire an education in the genre which probably could not have been matched anywhere else. Indeed, Simpson himself has described this period as “ten years of intense learning”. It was also in these years that he began to display those superb skills as an arranger of folk songs which he was to further refine and develop in his later career. The second key episode was his move to the United States in the late 1980s. During the fifteen years that he lived there, Simpson was able to thoroughly immerse himself in both the old-time and African-American folk traditions which he had begun to explore earlier in his life. In more recent years, he has also, as we shall see, become increasingly interested in the way in which folk songs crossed over the Atlantic from England, Ireland and Scotland and the ways in which they were transformed and revitalised in the course of this process. During these years, Simpson also recorded a series of fine albums, both solo and with a range of diverse collaborators including his then wife, the singer Jessica Radcliffe. His most exotic musical partnership in those years was, perhaps, that with the Chinese pipa (a type of lute) player, Wu Man. They recorded a fine largely improvised album together, Music For The Motherless Child, in 1997.
Eventually, in the early 2000s, Simpson returned to live in England permanently. Since doing so, he has made a series of superb albums which blend together his diverse musical interests and eclectic range of musical influences in a rich and wholly satisfying way. My first choice, One More Day / Boots Of Spanish Leather comes from the live album, Bootleg USA, which he made shortly before his return to England. It combines his version of a classic sea shanty with a cover of one of Bob Dylan’s finest early bittersweet love songs. The latter, in particular, offers a close to perfect vehicle for a display of Simpson’s skills as a finger-picking guitar player. The next choice, Dives And Lazarus, is from the outstanding 2001 album The Bramble Briar on which he concentrates exclusively on English material. Dives itself is one of the oldest surviving English folk songs and was among those collected by some of the pre-eminent figures in the early days of the folk revival there. For example, Cecil Sharp himself recorded one variant version of the song while Vaughan Williams used it as the basis of his composition, Five Variants Of Dives And Lazarus. Despite its relative antiquity, however, its central theme of the responsibilities which the wealthy owe to the poor means that it remains as topical today as when it was written. Its memorable melody also means that it has attracted many cover versions, including those by The Young Tradition, June Tabor and Nic Jones. In my opinion, Simpson’s version ranks with the very best of these and he does full justice to the song’s beautifully stately tune. The track also features a beautifully subtle and unobtrusive cello part by Barry Phillips.
My next selection, Rounding The Horn also comes from The Bramble Briar and is another extraordinary example of Simpson’s dexterity and deftness as a guitarist. The song is a classic sea shanty which, as Simpson himself has pointed out, manages to convey “a novel’s worth of motion and ideas” in six relatively short verses. It had previously been recorded under the title, The Gallant Frigate Amphitrite by the late great Peter Bellamy and it was from him that Simpson first heard the song.
For most of the early years of his career, Martin Simpson was primarily known as a peerless interpreter both of folk songs and of songs written by other contemporary songwriters. However, from the early 2000s onwards, he began to include more of his own compositions on his records. As my next choice, Love Never Dies, clearly demonstrates, he quickly proved to be both a very gifted songwriter and an excellent lyricist. In its deft character sketches of people that Simpson met at a “truck stop in Arkansas”, that song displayed his keen powers of observation and his gift for utilising memorable turns of phrase. It also gives a fleeting but sharp glimpse into the lives of two travelling musicians, one retired and the other (Simpson himself) still living life “on the road”.
The fact that Simpson was becoming a major songwriter in his own right was further demonstrated with the release of his classic 2007 album, Prodigal Son. In my opinion, this is not only the finest record that he has released to date, but it is also one of the very best folk albums made in recent times. Along with a number of brilliant interpretations of classic folk songs (including The Granemore Hare, Little Musgrave, Andrew Lammie), the CD also includes an inspired cover version of the Randy Newman song, Louisiana 1927. My choices from it, however, are both self-penned compositions by Simpson. The first of these is the beautiful instrumental, She Slips Away, which he has described as being his response to sitting with his mother “the afternoon before she died”. The track also demonstrates his unrivalled mastery of both touch and tone. The second, Never Any Good, is another intensely personal song which reflects on his father’s life in a profoundly moving way. The song’s power is further reinforced by the superb harmony vocal by the great Kate Rusby.
Martin Simpson’s skills as an accompanist and arranger of folk songs are clearly apparent in the next selection, which comes from his 2011 album, Purpose + Grace. Strange Affair reunited him with the peerless June Tabor on a cover of one of Richard Thompson’s finest songs. It clearly displays the musical understanding between them, with Simpson’s spare and subtle filigree guitar work beautifully complementing Tabor’s typically excellent vocal.
Given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, the next selection, Palaces Of Gold, seemed to pick itself. This great song was written by Leon Rosselson in response to that tragedy and Simpson does full justice to it here. Just like Dives And Lazarus, Waly Waly is a song of considerable antiquity, with some accounts claiming that it dates back to Elizabethan times. There are also numerous variant versions of the song, the best known of which is probably the often-recorded The Water Is Wide. Simpson’s version of this classic song is a beautifully understated and subtle one and shows his complete mastery of the long narrative ballad.
Just prior to finishing this Toppermost, I had some concerns that I had not done full justice to the ‘American’ side of Martin Simpson’s repertoire in putting it together. On the same day that I had begun wondering whether I should add another selection to it to make it more representative of this side of his work, I paid a visit to my local CD store. In the folk section there, one of the first I came across was Simpson’s brand new album, Ever Popular Favourites, made with Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the transmission of folk songs from England to the USA (and, indeed, vice versa) and in the ways in which they were adapted and transformed in response to the local conditions in the areas where they ‘arrived’. While the whole album is excellent, the version of John Hardy is one of the very best I have heard. Simpson’s guitar playing on it is also marked by a dexterity and an exuberance which is unusual even by his exalted standard.
In a review of one of Simpson’s recent albums in Roots magazine, Colin Irwin has described his remarkable burst of creativity since the early 2000s as marking an ‘Indian summer’ to his already distinguished career. In many respects, this description is a remarkably apt one and it is to be hoped that this sustained period of artistic excellence can be continued long into the future. As a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, Martin Simpson now stands in the very front rank of modern folk musicians. He has also displayed a willingness to cross musical boundaries in a way which makes it very difficult, at times, to know where his next musical steps will take him. At the moment, though, his musical vision remains an extremely assured one and his work has reached a level of maturity and consistency which bodes very well for any future projects he may undertake.
Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …