Martin Simpson has been a full-time professional musician since 1970 and is, without question, one of the finest acoustic and slide guitar players in the business, as well as an accomplished banjoist and songwriter. In addition to his solo work, he’s constantly in demand as a session player; of special note is a career-long collaboration with June Tabor (‘staggering, an amazing singer’, in his words), a musical friendship that I’m delighted to see he revives on his new album, Purpose & Grace.
One constant throughout a long and fulfilling career crowned with awards has been his passion for American music. How did a lad from Scunthorpe become so interested in the American ballad, I asked him when we spoke recently. ‘The first ballad I ever heard was in junior school, a version of “Barbry Allen”, and it absolutely nailed me. I had such an intense emotional response to it’. This was the early 60s, when the folk revival was hitting its stride. Like many at the time he quickly found his way to Joan Baez’s albums, adding ‘Mary Hamilton’ and ‘Geordie’ to his youthful repertoire. ‘That was a lot of people’s exposure to the American ballad form, and shortly after that I heard Peggy Seeger. I was hooked – that was it!’
Living in the States for a good part of the 1980s, married at the time to an American, he plunged deeper into Americana. Smoke and Mirrors was a blues-based album more American than cherry pie. Ask him about his guitar influences and he’ll reel off a list of African-American masters before namechecking those nearer home like Davy Graham or Bert Jansch.
So, in a sense, he rediscovered the traditional music of his native land through the American balladeers? Yes, he agrees: ‘It was all part of this massive amount of music that I was exposed to.’
Which brings us to Hedy West, another formative influence, who, like Peggy Seeger, was resident in Britain in the 60s.
As a teenager, Simpson first saw Hedy at his local folk club. ‘I had a major crush on her,’ he recalls. ‘She was really lovely. I purchased a copy of Ballads from her. She signed it for me with a very sweet little drawing.’ He cherishes that record still, although he’s had to buy a replacement copy as he wore out the original with repeated playing. Ever since then he’s been ‘proselytizing’, as he puts it, on her behalf, urging anyone who’ll listen to seek out her albums, hard as they’ve been to find until recently. ‘She had a beautiful voice and she was an absolute master of timing and, just, conversational shifts in singing. Massively important, and massively influential, certainly on me.’
‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ is one of the songs Simpson learned from Hedy West: ‘It’s a really interesting song on lots of levels. To start with, it’s a brilliant preservation of a British ballad in the States. I don’t know of any English version of it, despite the fact that it’s obviously an English song in derivation. I love the story. As Kit, my wife, pointed out, it’s a song where a woman is corruptly wielding power. That’s a very strong idea, a very strong image. Mostly, in folk songs, you find it’s men being corrupt with their power to have their evil way. Here, the poor man ends up getting hung because he’s faithful to his girlfriend! I also love the tune.’
I ask how he approaches traditional music in general. ‘In my music room I have a wall full of books. Bronson’s Traditional Tunes, the Child Ballads, all those American collections… You name it. If I see anything that’s on the subject, I buy it. Then you hear recorded versions. I listen a lot when I’m on the road to field recordings, as well as listening to modern music. So I’ll be constantly on the listen, on the look-out, for a great version of a ballad. Having found a great tune, then it’s up to you to decide what to do lyrically with it – whether you use an existing set of lyrics or you look through the various versions and find something that just adds a little more atmosphere, a little more depth or tension to the story. It’s a great process, a wonderful process. And great fun.’
First published in English Dance & Song magazine as part of a feature on the traditional ballad ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’.