Martin Simpson has been a professional artist for 40 years now. He plays the guitar, his facility, dexterity and talent on the instrument justifies his reputation, in the realms of blues and folk music, as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of the art . I can claim to be the first person to know how good he is. We sat together at school for 3 years, he lived a spit (with a fair wind) away from my house and we would discover music together while pretending to do our homework. I was around when Martin first picked up a guitar as a 12 year old kid. It was a pleasure to hear him play then and it has remained so as I have followed his music and his progress over all these years.
It took some time for Martin to write his own songs, he operates in a traditional music with an rich and endless supply of wonderful tunes. “Never Any Good” his song from 2007 won awards in the UK as the folk song of the year. It is about his father, a man I remember as spirited and engaging. He certainly was different from my other friends’ dads. It’s an amenity to have a connection with the songs Martin has written about his youth. To proffer the idea that “East Common Lane” is the best hometown song ever may be hyperbole. It is certainly the finest song written about our steel-making industrial town.
It was the first Bob Dylan LP what done it…the poet of our generation was called a “folk” singer but that record is just full of the blues. As an entry point into American music we saw no difference between Woody Guthrie or Blind Willie McTell. If they were both good enough for Bob then we were not going to argue. Martin would decipher (with amazing ease) the guitar parts while I enjoyed both the recorded and live performances. He began to play at the local folk club, my first exposure to the power and pleasure in live music. The patrons were only too eager to loan Martin their prized records. We would inhale this vinyl and gorge on this fantastic old, but new to us, music, two 14 year old boys intoxicated by the artistry of these old singers and pickers.
Years later I heard Martin play a Dylan song on the radio. He spoke of “us” getting paid from our paper round, sharing a bottle of cider and lying on the floor trying to deduce the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics. Holy what…I was in my house alone, no-one to tell that they were talking about me on the radio ! I would bring some of the great and innovative new music around. Watching Martin bend the strings of his acoustic guitar to emulate Jimi Hendrix was a moment of jaw-dropping realisation that my friend could do anything with this instrument.
When my Dad was alive I would keep him informed of Martin’s career and progress. Dad remembered him fondly. He would proudly remind me of Martin’s first professional engagement. Dad organized an evening’s entertainment at the local rugby club. Martin performed a well received set on his banjo and was paid to do the thing he loved.
I have chosen this clip because it is one of my favourite songs by a favourite songwriter. His interpretation of “Louisiana 1927” displays his great ability but also that Martin is aware that the blues is still around, that the tradition continues. I have listened to his music for many years and have always known that he was no revivalist or preservationist. This Randy Newman song is a modern blues played by a modern musician.
Over the years I have not seen Martin play as often as I should. He lived in the USA for some time. Whenever we have met it has been a pleasure to see him and hear him play. One night in Birmingham a dedication from him to my wife and myself was delightful. In London a girlfriend was most impressed that, at the first concert we attended together, we got to hang out with the man who had played so wonderfully. We shared our youthful exploration of music which challenged received conventions and informed us of new possibilities. It gave us both a lifelong love of music.
I am often asked if I play an instrument. I am able to reply that I was present at the development of one of Britain’s great guitarists (this explains my intolerance of those who only strum). My clumsy attempts did not really belong in the same room as such a prodigy. I do though think that I should have given Martin an electric guitar, written some lyrics and made some noise. I would have been farting through silk now…rock and roll’s loss. He is back in the UK now and tours regularly. I know that I will see him perform again and look forward to that time.