Martin Simpson on song collecting, Graham Coxon, the Watersons and the true definition of folk music

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It’s a late January evening and you join us as we’re being turned away from a Thai restaurant in Andover, Hampshire. “We have nothing available,” they tell us, doing their best to hide a room full of entirely empty tables. Undeterred, if a little confused, we opt for Plan B. One of our party – a folk guitarist of some renown and pedigree – has had the forethought to pre-book a table at a restaurant back on the high street. The trouble is, he’s not going to find the high street without some assistance. Not that he’s the worse for wear, of course. He’s just not really sure where he is. “I’m not sure if I’ve been here before,” he tells us, gesturing at Andover in general. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, this happens. I think I’ve played Andover in the past, but I can never be sure.”

The ‘this’ that Martin Simpson has been doing for long enough to forget whole towns is performing as a cherished and revered member of the UK’s folk community. Having released his debut album in 1976, he’s since released 19 other solo albums (many of them on Topic Records), two live albums and at least seven collaborative albums. He’s made more session appearances than most people could wave a mic stand at, and he’s twice won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards as Artist of the Year. Oh, and it turns out he has played Andover before, probably back in 2008, but the member of the audience who clears that up for him later in the evening can’t properly remember either. Maybe Andover is just one of those places.

Before the gig starts, however, there’s the small matter of a Grizzly Folk interview to get through. So we settle down for lasagna and risotto in one of Andover’s finest establishments, pictures of The Troggs gazing down on us from the walls, and tuck in.

So let’s start with that question shall we? What’s your definition of folk music?

Folk music is music that accompanies a raffle. There’s no better definition of it than that!

Is that your definition, is it? 

Yeah. I’ve been doing this for such a long time, and the folk clubs always revolved a raffle. And sometimes you just felt that it was the most important part of the evening, you know? [Puts on exaggerated Yorkshire accent] “Right, now it’s time for the raffle. Everyone pay attention!”

When was the first time you can remember going to a folk club? Did you go originally as an audience member? 

Well, I did, but when I look back, fate was very kind to me. I got my guitar when I was 12 – that was 1965, exactly as the folk club boom really rocketed. The Scunthorpe Folk Club started at the Good Companion’s Hut on East Common Lane, which was 300 yards from where I lived. It was on a Tuesday night and I think it was sixpence to get in. It was an unlicensed premises to start with, so I could go from the offset. Yes, I went initially as an audience member but within a year I was one of the floor singers. With hindsight, they were so kind because I was soooo bad. I really was. The learning curve was… well, precipitous, really.

When you say you were a floor singer, were you getting up there with the guitar or with one finger in your ear? 

Yeah, with the guitar, and very shortly after that with the banjo, too.

Was there a set of songs that you had to know to be able to go and play at those clubs? 

It’s fair to say that if you look at folk music, you will see that songs are in and out of fashion, despite the fact that they might be 250 years old. They’ll suddenly be massively in fashion due to someone’s version of them. And in the 60s there were a lot of songs that were hugely fashionable. ‘Anji’, for instance, which you absolutely had to play if you were a half-decent guitar player. Actually, I refused to play it. I was a bit like that. I still am. Although, that said, I did actually play it with Graham Coxon at the Bert Jansch tribute at Celtic Connections, which was really good fun.

He’s an impressive guitarist, isn’t he. 

He’s actually lovely, and he is a very, very good player who has decided he’s going to be a better player. And I love that. I just love the fact that here’s a guy who is just woodshedding all the time. We chat from time to time, you know: “Whatcha doing?” “Woodshedding.” Haha. “Teaching myself to play.” I think that’s brilliant.

Without wanting to sound too cynical, I guess he’s made the money to be able to woodshed all the time. 

Yeah, he really has, but it’s what you should be doing anyway, isn’t it? Whether or not you’ve made the money, I’ve always felt really strongly that you’re actually supposed to get better – you’re actually supposed to push it, you know?

I suppose I was coming of age when Britpop was happening. He was like a god to me and my friends. He made such fascinating sounds out of a plank of wood with strings. But it was through Graham talking about people like Bert Jansch that a lot of us came to folk music. 

That’s brilliant. I love that. I really enjoyed meeting Graham Coxon and Bernard Butler and those guys. Hanging out with Ben Watt, who is utterly delightful… Great singers and lovely players.

Do you find that each generation is attracted to folk music for the same reasons? 

I think so. Folk music is so direct. It’s so emotive. The stories are so brilliant and challenging, and they work on such a high level. The music’s the same, I think. The quality of the music is so undeniable. I’m always slightly amused by the fact that people are rather snotty about folk music. I had an elderly aunt who was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When I got into folk music I was playing my guitar all the time and she would ask, “What kind of music are you learning, dear?” And when I’d say folk music, she’d say, “Oh! That Bolshevik nonsense!” I thought that was brilliant. I loved that. [Cheekily] “Ooooh, yes. I like to think it is!”

In England I think there’s definitely a snobbery about English folk music. People think it’s not actually that good, musically, and they’re wrong. If you look at people like Percy Granger and Vaughan Williams and people like that, they got into folk music because they realised that, in melodic terms alone, it was unbeatable and unbelievably inspiring. It’s partly why I was having a nervous breakdown in my hotel room last night. I’m trying to write songs which are actually very much about England, and trying to write tunes when you’ve got these traditional tunes in existence which are scarily brilliant tunes is… [Looking at the picture of Reg Presley near the restaurant door] Well, you can’t just do ‘Wild Thing’, can you?

That kind of begs the question, though: can you write a folk song these days? 

I don’t try to write “folk songs”, in inverted commas. I think people do, though. If you look at someone like Ewan Maccoll – there’s someone whose songs have passed into the tradition. Hamish Henderson has undoubtedly written stuff that’s in the tradition. You know, he got to the point where he was going ’round, and people were singing his songs to him. “I wrote that!” “Ya didnae! Ya didnae! I learnt it from me granny!” “Yeah, but I wrote it!” I think the answer is that, yes, it is possible to write songs that pass into the tradition.

So it becomes a folk song once it has passed into the tradition? 

Yeah. It kind of becomes a folk song when people forget who wrote it, I think.

That’s a good definition. 

Yeah, but it’s not great if you’re a writer depending on your royalties!

So, at the age of 12 you had your guitar, and you had the Beatles and the Kinks all around you… 

I did, but I also had two elder brothers. The oldest one is 12 years older than me, so when I was three he was bringing home rock’n’roll 78s. I was listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Little Richard in one room, while my father sat at the piano in the other room and played Gilbert & Sullivan. And my middle brother, who is four years older than me, started buying blues records really early on. I remember – this was at the time when, if you bought an LP and didn’t like it you could take it back – he bought the first Rolling Stones record. We listened to it and he went, “what’s this white, wimpy shit?” So he took it back and traded it in for Folk Festival of the Blues, which was Muddy Waters and all that stuff – much more to the point, I thought. So I was a fearsome snob by the time I was 13. I was really into Big Bill Broonzy and all that stuff. It just nailed me.

So it was the American folk tradition that got you first? 

It was, because that’s what I heard first. And then you go to the folk clubs…

So would you play the American stuff down at the folk clubs? 

Yeah, I would. I remember from really early on not really feeling that there was very much difference between a Scots ballad and an American badman ballad and a blues song and a lyric lament, you know? It all just moved me, so I’d try and do it in my own way. People always used to say, “You can’t do this! You’ve got to make up your mind what it is that you do.” And I thought, no I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, this is what folk music is. It’s all this stuff. When I moved to the States, I was so gratified because I felt like I’d invented American folk music! I was doing Scottish stuff, African American stuff, banjo stuff in such and such a tuning… it’s what American folk music is. It’s that fantastic, brilliant mixture that crosses race, crosses everything you can imagine and gets mashed up. It’s actually the most successful part of American society, music, I think.

I wanted to ask you about collecting songs. When you’ve been in the game for as long as you have, is it still possible to come across old songs that you haven’t heard before? 

It is, yeah. And the thing about it is that there are this many songs, but there are this many versions. I’ve just recorded a song which I first heard probably on a Joan Baez record in the very early 60s. It’s called ‘East Virginia’, and it’s in the repertoire of all the old-time banjo players, and bluegrass, too. The Stanley Brothers record it as ‘East Virginia Blues’. Banjo Bill Cornett recorded a beautiful version. I’ve known it forever. I have a house full of instruments because I really feel that having a house full of instruments is like having a draw full of pencils, or crayons or inks, you know? For the last couple of years I’ve had a couple of ukuleles knocking about. One of these ukuleles I picked up recently and started playing ‘East Virginia’, and realised what a beautiful feel it had. About five minutes later, Rayner Gellert – a beautiful fiddle player – tweeted about Banjo Bill Cornett and put up his version of this song. It was just one of those things. The synchronicity was so great, I just thought, that’s the one – I’ll have that! So I probably heard it some time before 1965, but I’m just recording it now.

Were you ever one of those that went down to places like Cecil Sharp House and rummaged through the library? 

I’m more the kind of person who has a massive collection of books at home. I’ve always gone into secondhand bookshops and anything on the subject of folk music I’ve bought. Over the years I’ve developed a library, really. When I lived in the States, I’d frequent university bookshops, so I’ve got, for instance, three volumes of Bronson’s Tunes of the Child BalladsI keep collecting this stuff because if I want to do a version of a song, I can go to my own resources and go through it all. As I say, there are dozens and dozens of versions of these songs, and some of them are complete gems. You keep looking and you’ll find something that’s perfection.

Is it a melodic thing or the story that tends to grab you first? Or is it a bit of both? 

It’s everything, really. Sometimes it’s just sound. John Cohen, who was a film maker, musician and song collector, made a record called High Atmosphere and it was about North Carolina musicians. He got the title from one of the banjo players tuning his banjo and saying [in broad Southern States accent], “If ya move this string from here to here, it gives you a kinda high atmosphere!” I love that because it’s entirely parallel to interviews with Joni Mitchell talking about tuning the guitar: “I tune to the resonance of the day.” There’s a film that he made too, and it starts with a black and white view of the North Carolina countryside, and it’s just to the sound of this bloke tuning his banjo. When I saw that in the cinema, just that sound had the hairs up on the back of my neck. It blows me away. It’s so visceral, that stuff, to me.

Do you have themes that you go after when you’re putting albums together? 

I do, yeah. The record I’m doing now has a lot to do with the land. Nature, too. In the last couple of years, I’ve really been struck by the quality of nature writers in this country. Robert MacFarlane in particular, but also John Lewis Stempel and similar people. A few years ago I read a book called All Roads Lead to France, which is about Edward Thomas, the poet. I just became obsessed with him! He was a walker and a writer, and he was just an incredibly inspirational and intense bloke. So I just started writing songs about that, really – about Edward Thomas and his relationship with maps, and Ivor Gurney, and his relationship with Thomas’s widow. And then I found myself looking at the idea of how, in one sense, you can have an incredibly positive relationship with maps. When I was a kid there was a hole in my neighbour’s garage wall. I used to crawl into the garage and stare at these maps and imagine I was there. So I’ve been writing this big song about maps, which I’ve almost finished… two years later! It’s one of two I’m writing, and the other is about the land. I’m also doing ‘Reynardine’ on the record, which is a ballad about a bloke who can change form from man to fox. And then I thought I’d look at more tunes like that, so I’m doing ‘The Great Silkie of Sules Skerry’, which is about a bloke who turns from man to seal. It’s brutally sad.

How do you approach something like ‘Reynardine’, which loads of people have already done? 

It’s really interesting when people say, “you can’t play this because everyone else has done it”. It’s folk music! It goes back to that snobbery. I always feel that when you do a big traditional song, it’s up to you to briefly make it your own – to pass it on. I was interested in what David Suff said in your interview with him on this blog – the stuff about performance. You do have to perform these songs as far as I’m concerned. You have to transmit them. You have to make people believe them. You have to move them.

And presumably that’s the reason that Topic Records chose to release your records over somebody else’s…

Well, I like to think so!

It can’t just be the song. It has to be about how it’s carried across. 

Exactly. I’m always really, really delighted that I’ve had this relationship with Topic. I first recorded for them in 1980 with June Tabor. I recorded with them until 1985, and then I moved to the States. When I came back the first thing I did was make The Bramble Briar, which was interesting because at the time Tony Engle was head of Topic then and he asked me to make an instrumental album of English music. I said I didn’t want to do anymore instrumental records. I’d been living in the States making instrumental records. I wanted to do an album of mostly English songs. I did it and it was so well received critically, it was delightful. That was 2001, I guess, and since then I’ve made a record every two years for Topic. It’s great.

Speaking of songs about the land, and since you mentioned June Tabor, I recently unearthed your version of ‘The Scarecrow’… 

That was such a big song for me and June. Oh my god! It used to scare people to death! It used to scare me to death! It’s such a heavy song. When June was on, it was absolutely riveting, and we played together so well.

It is a heavy song. And for someone like Mike Waterson, known for interpreting traditional songs, to write something like that… He was an incredible songwriter himself. 

But it’s straight out of the tradition… the imagery… it’s so utterly traceable, you know? Which is why it’s so brilliant.

What happens in the last verse? Does a newborn child actually get tied to a stake? 

It’s very, very dark. It’s like ‘John Barleycorn’. But, you know, Mike was one of the sweetest, loveliest, most garrulous, practical, down-to-earth, delightful fellas. He’d much rather have been off fishing or buggering about in the shed. But he was – and I think Martin Carthy used this word – a totally fearless singer. He did stuff, y’know – he yelped, he whooped, he split octaves. It was like, where is the precedent for that? Who knows?

Because I grew up in Scunthorpe and the Watersons were from Hull, I came across them at a really young age. I fell completely in love with Lal when I was in my teens. She was just incredibly strange and cool. They were all beautiful, you know?

That strange attractiveness comes across in her songs, too, doesn’t it? Songs like ‘Red Wine and Promises’ and ‘Winifer Odd’… 

Incredible lyrics, incredible tunes. Soooo out there.

When you decide to put together a tour, how do you go about pulling together a set? Your repertoire must be huge. 

I basically have a core of material that I do at any given time, and I add stuff at this end and it falls off at this end. There are always songs that get requested. When I think about it, my potential repertoire is kinda scary. But you can’t include all the songs. You wouldn’t be able to play all that stuff.

One thing that strikes me as amazing, and flummoxes me when I try and sing folk songs myself, is the ability to remember all of those lyrics. Do you have instant access to all of those words? If I was to request ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’, you’d be able to pull that off fairly successfully? 

Yes and no. Sometimes they go, so you have to go and find them again and refresh yourself. There is a huge amount of information attached to a repertoire like that, with big ballads and all that. But sometimes you lose it in the middle of a performance. It’s a horrifying thing when you lose a song! There’s a song I do called ‘An Englishman Abroad’, and it has two completely separate musical pieces to it. I was playing a comedy club in Nottingham which does gigs, and I was on fire! I was so happy. I played the introduction and it came to the change in the song, which starts with the words, “dear boy.” So I sung them, and… nothing. What the heck is next? It was gone. Utterly and completely gone. And I knew there must be someone in the audience with the record who knew the line, but they were too shy. So eventually I just had to do something else. But as I was walking offstage, some guy came up to me and told me the missing lyrics: “they just don’t understand me”. That’s all it would’ve taken, and I’d have been back.

Earlier in the conversation we were talking about Graham Coxon and Bernard Butler. I was about to refer to them as the young guns, but I guess they must be somewhere around 50 now. Which actual young guns on the scene do you listen out for? 

I think, in terms of guitarists, Ewan Mclennan is lovely, and not just as a guitar player, but the whole package. Ewan is great. He has a beautiful voice, he’s a lovely player, he writes really well. He’s got it going on, basically! Sam Carter is really good, too.

He does a great version of Nic Jones’s ‘Canadee-I-O’ on Youtube. 

He’s very, very good at playing like Jonesy. He doesn’t ever play like Jonesy these days, but he can.

Rightly so, I’d say. It’s very easy to spot people who are copying people as distinctive as Nic Jones. 

Absolutely. From a very young age, going to the folk clubs, I was this far [holds pinched fingers up] away from Jonesy, Carthy, Dick Gaughan. I was agog. And at the same time I was going to see American folk artists – Big Joe Williams and all these guys. I don’t know whether it was a mixture of laziness or genuine desire, but I just thought it was too easy to sound like somebody else. And you know you’re never going to sound exactly like somebody else. So I just decided I was going to sound like me from very early on. I always thought, be inspired by it, you know? Run with it.

Martin Simpson is currently recording a new album while touring and getting involved with the Shake the Chains project. Follow Martin on Twitter, and keep up with his schedule via his website. Main pic credit: Graham Whitmore. 

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