To get you in the mood for our next print edition, out this coming week, we’ve dug into our archives and pulled out this 24-year-old whopper. Way back in January 1995, Folk Roots issue 139/140 to be precise, Ian Anderson chatted with Martin Simpson, a guitar wizard with a facial hair crisis. Make sure you pick up fRoots issue 424 to find out where the wizard has wandered since. 

It’s early August 1994 and Martin Simpson and I are to be found craning our necks over the side of the main stage at Edmonton Folk Festival in Canada. It’s a beautifully warm, sunny Thursday evening (she who makes rain has yet to tip the contents of the heavens over the site, later turning it into a fair approximation of the Somme). Upon the stage is Ms. Joni Mitchell, undertaking her sound check to a deserted hillside. I am struck by the remarkably stupid realisation that I’m dead impressed by how much like Joni Mitchell she sounds. Martin is simply baffled. Unusually for a man of his advanced guitarative talents, Simpson can’t figure out what the hell tuning she’s using. If only he’d been able to jump forward to our November issue: it was probably the one she revealed as being tuned to the sound of the British Columbia coastline.

It’s been a busy time for the man they called Simpkins: the postal system seems to have dumped a continual rain of CDs and videos involving the chap through our letterbox this year. He’s clearly still excited by living in America, where he moved some years ago with his third wife, American singer/ songwriter Jessica (the most recent Simpson release is their duo album Red Roses, on Rhiannon Records in Britain), and he’s on a creative flyer.

We agree to meet the next lunchtime in the bar of the hotel where the entire festival artist roster is lodged. Mr Simpson attends, apparently sporting half the planetary system impaled upon his right shoulder, a large Disney character branded across his right tit, the arse-end of a dead rodent stuck below his lip, and posing boots. Does this stuff improve his guitar playing, I enquire?

Martin Simpson, 1994. This image and the feature image by Dave Peabody.

“Greatly. Greatly. It’s an attitudinal thing. This is a vole – actually a gopher – I swallowed a gopher.” You couldn’t get it all in then? “No, have you ever seen a gopher? They’re nasty, let me tell you.”

Flippancy aside, I’m more curious about the three themed guitar instrumental albums he’s released in recent years. Does somebody suggest them, does he realise he’s got enough tunes in hand to make an album on a theme, or does he have to work at it?

“When I first got to the States, Stefan Grossman had invited me to record for Shanachie. Shanachie are a very visible record company in the States, so it was a very good thing for me to do. It was then a question of what album do you make for Shanachie, and Stefan Grossman did not want me to record a blues album. In fact he said, ‘You’ve got to do an album of British material’, and I thought about that and which way to approach it. Really the obvious answer was to do an album of airs, because that’s what I play. In my moments of real relaxation with the guitar I like to play very slow tunes with a lot of space in them. Actually, I had all that material pretty much in my head.”

“When it came to the second album, When I Was On Horseback, I had to learn some of the tunes. That’s a different sort of album anyway because it had a band on it. I had to arrange for the band and work with it. They’re very organic. A Closer Walk With Thee [on Fledg’ling in the UK, Gourd in America] was different again because I probably only knew half the material, so I actually had to do a lot of research – well, I didn’t have to, I could have just done it, but I wanted to do a lot of research into it. I have my in-house archive, you see. Jessica knows so many songs. I said ‘It’s a good idea this hymns and gospel album, but I need some material’, so she would just sing me these songs and I’d learn them. I love that. The great thing is that to start with I always learn from vocal lines.”

“And if you ever wanted a way to demonstrate the breadth of American traditional music and the way that black and white music cross over so comfortably and easily, it just underlined all the positive points of Blacks, Whites & Blues, if you remember that wonderful book by Tony Russell. It was a really, really interesting project. Some of the stuff came up in the research like Wash In That Beautiful Pool. I learned that one from Jessica and asked where it came from. ‘I learned it in the South. It’s a camp meeting song.’ I found out that it had previously been recorded as a bottleneck banjo piece! That’s worth the price of admission! Doc Walsh, that’s who it was. So it was great fun doing those projects. All of them had a lot of side entertainment in addition to learning all the stuff and arranging it; there was a huge amount of other benefits for me. I felt I really knew more about American music when I finished that.”

Martin Simpson, 1994. Picture by Dave Peabody.

But are these projects still able to stretch him on the guitar? “Oh yeah, they do because I make them do that. I recorded the album and actually finished all the guitar parts, with one or two exceptions, in April ’93. A month ago I finished transcribing the book, so what I had to do was go back with the album and go ‘Oh my god, what the fuck was I doing here?’ And in some cases it was really hard to do, because there’s a lot of improvisation on an album like that. The baritone guitar part for A Closer Walk With Thee I played for six months and then went in the studio and stuck one down. Probably 75 percent of the album is first take, because that’s the way I like to play. But then you go back and try and transcribe it, and it’s very hard work. I send my transcriptions to John Roberts and he renders them into music. I just do the tablature. We spent probably an hour and three quarters with me playing the baritone guitar down the phone, staring at these phrases to get the timing right.”

“One of the things about all that business, the transcription and teaching side of what I do, is that it forces you to look at what you’re doing. And I feel I’ve learned so much. I’ve finally just stopped teaching one to one. I’ve done that since I was 17 really, and I’ve got three or four students that I’m keeping on because I really like working with them, but I’m not doing it any more.”

I seem to remember that in the olden days he wasn’t a great advocate of the guitar tablature thing. We all used to argue there was little point in producing another clone of a particular guitarist; that people should be inspired to figure it out for themselves. Martin still maintains that’s the case, but has tempered his views somewhat. “We were professional musicians holding that opinion and very much wrapped up in the fact that what we wanted was to develop our own personalities as musicians. We wished for other professional musicians, other serious guitar players, to do the same. But there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of ever developing their own personality on the instrument. All they want to do is enjoy themselves with it. Meanwhile, I’m probably more bolshy than I’ve ever been in my desire not to sound like anybody else, and yet I’m probably more capable of sounding like everybody else than I ever was, if I wanted to.”

Martin Simpson, 1976. Picture by Keith Morris.

Presumably sitting down to analyse what you do in order to be able to write it down also gives you the tools to see exactly what other people do? “Absolutely. It just makes you think about the mechanics of the thing, which is great. People used to tell me that I was a late developer years ago, when I was in England, and I used to say ‘Get away, I’m a prodigy. On yer bike.’ But actually I feel like I am, I’m just hitting my stride now at 41. It’s great to be able to say to myself that I feel that life does begin at 40. I feel like I’m really hitting it. We’re growing up. I’ve realised that it’s not the anathema I thought it was. It’s actually kind of good for you. I always perceived myself still as being very much younger than Gaughan and Carthy, but I’m not really!”

We get into discussing the different influences at play on us compared with the new young generation of folk musicians now making waves. I’m beginning to realise how lucky I was to see all those old blues players, having Fred McDowell staying at my place for a month, going to see Son House and Skip James live, and trying to wrest my National guitar back out of the hands of Big Joe Williams!

“I spend a lot of time doing interviews about where I got the inspiration to get to the point that I’m at. There’s so much groundwork laid by each generation. I came up watching Carthy, Nic Jones, and Dave Burland, who’s a beautiful guitar player, a great accompanist. And of course Jansch and Renbourn and Davey Graham. If you have those people to take advantage of… I have such a great time with those memories. Big Joe Williams in particular is just a continuing enormous inspiration. I’m so glad to have the films that are available. There are some killer films of Big Joe Williams available. I relate the bills of some of those American Folk Blues Festival packages to Americans and they gag and fall on the floor! And we were seeing those people when we were kids. So I feel that every succeeding generation should be able to bring the gifts of what they’ve learned to their art.”

Maybe it gets to a point where everything gets too advanced – thinking of the staggering level of musicianship that you hear on some of those records from the ’20s and ’30s, people like Roy Smeck, some of those old stringbands. They reached such an incredible level of virtuosity and yet eventually the whole thing died. It was almost like it reached as far as it could go, maybe reached a level where most people couldn’t even aspire to playing it.

“Well I think what happens is that a lot of our knowledge of music, and our ability to respond to music is governed by what is commercially available. Unfortunately, the music business in its grossest commercial sense, is a really, really ignorant animal. What do they say, nobody ever got rich by overestimating the intelligence of the general public? Well unfortunately, I think the music business takes care of all that, by ignoring the highest levels of musicianship most of the time. I come across musicians all the time in North America who scare the shit out of me on all kinds of different levels of their playing and music. There are musicians over here who just sit in their bedrooms and play the guitar that are just so phenomenally good.”

“I don’t think that the cream ever goes away, I just think that it just gets ignored. Also I think you’re right in saying that when things get to a certain standard there’s a backlash against it. But you see, for me I don’t personally aspire to be a flash guitar player anyway. I can be, but I see all this incredible musicianship constantly. I go to the National Guitar Summer Workshop, and hear guitar players who are just teachers – they’re not professional guitar players in the sense that they’re not out and gigging – but they’re great players. And I feel that I’m able to catch a little bit of everything that’s around me. It’s like Olympic performance, it gets better. Of course there probably will come a time when a person can’t run 100 metres in .2 of a second, it’s going to have to slow down at some point.”

Martin Simpson, 1981. Picture by Ian Anderson.

What’s a typical Simpson gig these days?

“About two years ago I just was flat out gigging. I found myself on the road for the first six months of 1993. I was in Britain for two months and I did eight weeks solo, mostly east of the Mississippi. I came back home and I looked at what I’d done, and I thought ‘Wait a minute! This is a joke! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life going zoom, zoom from place to place’. And at that point I said I’m not going to do that any more. I’m going to do a weekend here and a weekend there. I’m only going to do gigs that draw people’s attention to what I’m doing. I’ve been doing things like the National Guitar Summer Workshop and The Prairie Home Companion on radio. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff on the West Coast. Santa Cruz is where I live now and it’s a great town. When you do things on the West Coast it comes to the attention of the media. It’s like the difference between living in London and living in Keighley.”

“I lived in Ithaca, New York and did things there. I had a great time with wonderful, staggeringly good musicians. Working with people like Hank Roberts the cellist, what a treat that was! But it doesn’t come to anybody’s attention because the media’s not there. So you move to the West Coast and call up a guitar player, and they say ‘Wow, we’re so pleased to hear from you, we’ve been fans of yours for years. Where have you been living? I’ve been having a great time meeting people like Albert Lee, guys who live out there, and just doing stuff which heightens the profile. On a purely professional level it’s the best thing I could have possibly done. And on top of that I have the pelicans at the end of my street and the sea lions barking in the night!”

Somehow, I always perceived that you had to go to New York to get media attention. “You could go to New York, but New York in acoustic music terms is perceived purely as a singer-songwriter town. And the singer-songwriter scene in America at the moment is scary to me. I did a radio interview not long ago, and afterwards I was slowly packing my stuff up and there were these other people in the studio. The interviewer said to them ‘How long have you been playing and writing?’ and the answer was ‘Eighteen months’! I nearly puked. I mean, this person is in their mid-30s and has probably been playing the guitar since they were in their teens, but writing songs for eighteen months, and they’re launching a career as a singer-songwriter. Excuse me!”

“The terribly unfortunate thing is that they haven’t realised that all they’re doing is setting to very lame musical accompaniment what they should be telling their analyst. If they actually went away and told their analyst the stuff they’d probably get much better songs out of it – or spent the time learning to play the guitar. I don’t want to be cruel, I really don’t, but there are a lot of people out there who are looking for physical and emotional freedom. They think they’ll find it by being a musician, and they will not find it by being a musician. They’ll grind themselves around the folk scene for a couple of years, then they’ll go ‘Fuck this’, and they’ll go back to being a teacher, or whatever.”

And most of them are so desperately unoriginal, trying to be politically correct and concerned about the environment. “Yeah. It’s very obvious to me that the environment needs to be saved, but it’s not going to help the environment to be prosaic and tedious in your delivery of its salvation. People are going to go out and chop down trees because they’ve been bored rigid by songs!”

“I have to put my blinkers on all the time to some of the stupidity. I think the human race is highly unimportant in many ways, but also the most important thing around. There was a thing happened in California recently where a jogger was attacked and partially eaten by a mountain lion. Mountain lions are on the rebound, which I think is a great thing, but human beings are so ubiquitous that nowadays they look like lunch. If you’re running down the road you look like a lycra sandwich. So this mountain lion killed and partially ate a woman, and both the mountain lion and the woman left an offspring. Simultaneously there were funds started for these offspring, and guess who got more money! The mountain lion is now at Harvard! I thought it was just the English that were like that!

“There is this particular feeling of political correctness. Joni Mitchell last night in her set, before she did her song which related to spousal abuse – if you like – said ‘I’m not a feminist’. And it was really interesting because I was surrounded by people who said ‘Why the fuck did she have to say that?’ What’s wrong with being a feminist?”

“I’ve written a song which I consider to be an extremely feminist one. I find a huge amount of inspiration in fables and folklore and so on, and I came across this character called Lilith, who was Adam’s first wife. The whole thing about Lilith, mythologically, was that she was thrown out of humanity for not doing as she was told and for enjoying sex. And she was the first woman. She was assigned a bunch of angels to chase her through eternity, and she’s supposed to be so pissed off that she murders babies in their sleep and stuff like this. And I just thought of all the appalling things that we do to women, very visibly all the time, and historically all the time, and in order to do that you’ve got to dehumanise them. We do this with the first one – ‘Let’s dehumanise her, let’s call her a demon’. To me, you have to write a song like that. But I don’t want it to be a prosaic piece, I want it to be a vehicle for my expression of that particular feeling, and I hope it works on a lot of different levels. I don’t want to hear somebody setting what I just said to music. That’s the thing about any of the political aspects of folk music. It should be art as far as I’m concerned.”

Martin Simpson, 1984. Picture by Ian Anderson.

“I wish the quality of singer-songwriters was better. People need to realise that the market over here is completely saturated. How are they all going to make a living? They’re not!”

How much inspiration does he get from the incredible diversity of different cultures in America? “It’s extraordinary, and where I live there are five national public radio stations and I channel-surf when I’m driving the car. In addition to the NPR stations there are the Spanish-speaking stations which are really varied. There’s a lot of stuff there. Living in the States and living on the road is like having access to a whole bunch of different countries. I’ve been everywhere though I haven’t spent a lot of time in the south-west, and I haven’t played in the big prairie states, so there’s this patch between Chicago and the Rockies that I haven’t done. I’ve spent a lot of time in the south-east, which for me is the source of so much. It’s a separate country. The culture down there is astonishing. I got to Nashville just after those two people had been murdered at the Pensacola abortion clinic by that crazy Nazi ex-priest – the fundamentalist right wing is probably the scariest thing about the States. I was talking about this and a guy just said very quietly in that Southern way, ‘Uhuh, righteousness and humidity, it’s a dangerous thing!’, which killed me!”

“Living in California I’m surrounded by all these odd bits of culture which you don’t expect to find. Like there’s a real strong Italian mandolin community out there. Southern Italian, Sicilian style mandolin. There’s a giant Jewish music thing, klezmer bands all over. Santa Cruz is the home of Dancing Cat, George Winston’s label that specialises in slack-key, so it gets more Hawaiian music through than probably any other town in the States, which is wonderful. The thing that strikes me all the time in my involvement with traditional music is that I hear bits of everything in everything. I find that so utterly inspiring, it’s fabulous. I wrote a tune immediately after I moved to Santa Cruz which I based on some of Dama Mahaleo’s playing and Hobart Smith’s version of The Cuckoo Bird, and it wasn’t any stretch to do that.”

We talk about island music. I’ve evolved this theory that in the old days of sailing ships, there were probably always musicians on board. You can bet your life that some of them got off the ship, thought ‘I like it here, I’m going to get married and stay’. It only takes one musician to completely change a local tradition.

An incredibly young 1960s version of Martin Simpson. See forthcoming cover feature in fRoots 424.

“Well look at Willy Johnson in the Shetlands, for instance. There’s a guy that didn’t only change the local tradition, but changed the entire approach to accompanying Scottish music on the guitar, because he’d been down to London and played in a dance band and went home again. I absolutely agree with that, and it makes me very excited to talk about it. I grew up in north Lincolnshire which is an island within an island. When I think about it, people like Big Joe Williams and various banjo players were like emissaries that were sent to me in my corner of the island and completely turned my head around and inspired me. Whatever anybody thinks of my guitar playing, there are aspects that are all me and nobody else because I learned it all wrong living in Lincolnshire when I was a kid. I will always remember sitting outside a hotel in the Seychelles and this funky little band coming up, with a mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, triangle and a snare drum, playing this music which started by sounding very French with a ferocious back beat. And I was sitting there thinking ‘this is really great’ and then they kicked into The Nutting Girl and The Keel Row, and I nearly lost my mind.”

“Everybody talks about Ali Farka Toure and how bluesy he sounds. That’s only one aspect of what he sounds like. To me, sometimes, you would swear that Martin Carthy would phrase things exactly the same. It’s really interesting, the more you get into that stuff, the more you find out it’s the same rather than different.”

So what’s afoot, Simpkins?

“I’ve got a new band which Jessica and I have put together on the West Coast, to do the material that we write, which is increasingly important to me. It’s an American band – a lot of Americans in it – but their backgrounds are so incredibly different. We’ve got a cellist who’s classically trained, but who amongst other things writes music for Indian films. His name’s Barry Phillips and he’s done a whole bunch of work on the music of the Shakers. The Shakers were a wonderful bunch of people, but they had a slight flaw built into their creed which is that they completely eschewed carnality, and there are no more Shakers! And then we have Kimball Hurd whose background was in R&B and country music, plays guitar and mandolin, and is a phenomenal harmony singer. There’s this gigantic tradition in the States of singing which is completely different from anything in England. And then grabbing hold of all these threads, we have two women, one of whom is essentially a songwriter and the other is a world music maniac, who plays accordeon and whistles. She has a radio show which as you see it written down is Arshmerkens – and you say ‘What is that?’ It’s ‘Irish-Americans’. When she explained that to me I nearly died. So all these guys have so much to bring from their particular area of expertise.”

Is he likely to tour that abroad or is the band just for local consumption? “I very much hope so. I’ve been coming back to England and doing the solo stuff – this’ll be the third time – and I’ve been doing some gigs with Jessica on this tour, but no, I’d love to bring that band because I think people in England would really like it.”

Plans for the year ahead? “I’m doing a blues album next month. It’s vocal – I have a desperate need to sing! I’ve always sung. When I got to the States people said ‘Do these instrumental albums’. I feel really that my guitar playing has improved enormously, but if anything has improved 1700 percent it’s my singing. So I go in and I do the blues album, and I’m going to spend most of 1995 doing festivals, either with the band or solo at blues festivals, which is very interesting because there are a lot of electric blues bands in the U.S.A. – boy are there a lot of them! And when you play at a blues festival – you listen to five bands one after another for five hours and then they put me on stage, and I rip their heads off.”

There seem to be a lot of young men with National Steel guitars playing the Robert Johnson songbook.

Martin Simpson, 1994. Picture by Dave Peabody.

“Way too many! Blues is a lifelong fascination to me, and it drives me crazy when I see ‘The Blues Boom’ happening again. In the States it’s bigger than it’s ever been. And people always get hold of the wrong end of the stick. You see guys who get up on stage and they suffer. That’s their thing. ‘I’m a white boy lost in the blues.’ They’re suffering furiously. They’re manufacturing their suffering. I wrote a song called Poor Mouth Blues, because I saw a guy once up on the stage who suffered so much that he made me so mad I wanted to smack him! Instead I went home and wrote this song about if how you get up there and bleat and moan like that you just become a bleater and a moaner, and you’ll probably go down the tubes as a result. So I was introducing this song and a guy comes up to me and tells me a story about a blues band that he had personally known members of. Apparently the bandleader wouldn’t let members of the band out of the dressing room unless they promised not to smile; he refused to let them be seen to be having a good time!”

“I’ve been having a great deal of fun working on the material for this blues album. I’ve never had the opportunity to record any of that stuff. I’ve got all these bits from way back – you know the song Delia that Gary Davis and Willie McTell both did? I’ve loved that song since I was a kid, and I learned to play it when I was about 15, but I wanted to feel that I’d really put my imprint on it. I did a version of it just before I left England, and I couldn’t remember what I’d done at all, so I got in touch with Ralph Bown who I knew had some live recordings. All I had to do was hear it once and I remembered what I was trying to do. But I’d never finished it, so I’m still working on putting that together.”

Here we are sat in one of those classic Canadian impeccably organised festivals, where we all know damn well that the artists give their best possible performances because everybody is so well looked after. What does Martin have to say to the average British festival organiser, apart from come and look at it and see how it’s done?

“One of the things that I love about living in North America is the fact that you get treated very, very well. Not all the time, but at best you really feel appreciated by the way things are organised You are treated with respect, like you are somebody with something to offer, and they realise the life of a travelling musician is pretty hard work. Sometimes, just getting somewhere is really hard work. When you’ve been sitting on a plane for six hours and then in a car for three hours, or whatever and your shoulders are knackered and you’ve got to get up on stage and do all this stuff which depends on you being relaxed and comfortable, well they’ve got an answer to that. Free massages. It makes me want to give the very best that I can.”

Simpkins, 2019 version. Photo by Judith Burrows.

“This one is absolutely typical, this big hotel setup where everybody can hang out. There are four different places to play in the evenings, three different acoustic jam rooms. Not only that but the whole workshop thing at these festivals. I did a guitar workshop here two years ago, the culmination of which was me, David Lindley, Oscar Lopez, Amos Garrett, Dan Ar Bras and the rhythm section from Amos’s band playing together. To be given the opportunity to do that is unbelievable. You do those things and you come away feeling you’ve got six months worth of work to do, just to kind of assimilate all the stuff you’ve been involved in. I think it’s wonderful. I think these festivals are the model for the way it should run. I would recommend any person in Britain who’s into acoustic music, who wishes they could have an incredibly cool music holiday, get to Canada for a month. Drive across and do the festivals, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Jasper, Canmore – those are all within four weeks. And Montreal Jazz Festival is free!”

Because he only goes back to England for concentrated tours now, presumably the travelling’s more sensible. I imagine he also doesn’t have to do all those crappy fill-in gigs he might once have needed in order to keep alive.

“Oh it’s fantastic! I get paid really well for the gigs I do in England now and they’re all pretty much sold out. It’s wonderful. But I took my American sound man, Will Russell, on the last two trips to England and there was one club in particular on the first tour where the sound system was utterly appalling. In one of the speaker cabinets the tweeter wasn’t working. We went back a year later and there was the same P.A. system and the tweeter still didn’t work! So we got there in time that Will could do this. We sat down, he took the speaker cabinet to bits and went ‘Oh look. The wire’s disconnected.’ And he took a screwdriver and did it up and then the tweeter worked. If we’d had time to do that the previous year he’d have done it then. But for fucks sake! If you’re in charge of a P.A. system and part of it obviously doesn’t work – fix it! Just stuff like that still drives me crazy.”

“The thing that’s always struck me as being the most difficult thing about being involved in the acoustic music scene is that it’s the only job I can think of where your livelihood is mostly in the hands of amateurs, because its amateurs who are the people that do the promoting and put the clubs together. And that’s really still very scary to me.”

And it unfortunately gives a minority some sort of holier than thou attitude, because ‘Hey, we’re not making any money out of this. We’re doing it for the love of it.’ In the end it’s the audience who get shortchanged because if the artist can’t give a good performance then they’ve robbed those people by taking money off them under false pretences.

“Exactly. And the most important thing to me about what I do is that I give a good show. I lay out to put new strings on my guitars every night, and I really, really, really care. All I ask for is to try and be involved with people who are as good at what they do as I am at what I do, and who care as much. If they’re not as good it’s OK, as long as they care as much. And that’s really everything to me. And that’s why I like it here, because these guys really care.”

Mr Simpson spends the rest of that day wading from workshop stage to workshop stage in his posing boots. He reports later that on finally returning to the hotel he got into the shower still wearing them…