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Martin Simpson playing a Fylde acoustic guitar.

Discovering Martin Simpson: 18 songs to get you started

A cohort of Martin Simpson fans pick the songs they think you ought to hear.

Discovering Martin Simpson for the first time? There’s so much to hear; where to begin? The legendary, fleet-fingered troubadour turned 70 this month, so we asked a handful of the folk world’s aristocracy to name a selection of songs that they think you ought to hear. From Richard Hawley to Angeline Morrison, here’s what they selected.

Dark Swift and Bright Swallow

Traditional folk singer, Rosie Hood, photographed by Elly Lucas

Rosie Hood: “Whenever I see the first swallow of the year I think of the lyric, ‘when spring’s first swallow splits the sky’. I can hear the swifts screaming above my garden at the moment so it seems particularly apt.”

Katherine Priddy stands in front of a green door with verdant leaves around her. She is staring straight into the camera, wearing a white blouse with her hair hanging around her shoulders.

Katherine Priddy: “I love the lyrics. They’re so hopeful. I always look forward to seeing the first swallows returning home – it marks the start of summer for me. It’s a wonderful constant in amongst so much uncertainty, and that’s what he sings about. Lovely natural cyclical rhythms that keep us all in orbit.”

George Sansome: “It’s got everything – it really tells a story, and the sound of the words (not just their meaning) holds a lot of beauty, too. It’s a stunning performance by all of the musicians, and Andy Bell’s production is wonderful.”

Martin Simpson: “It was walking on Slapton Sands and thinking about the whole brutal affair during the D-Day landings training and just how awful that history was. Nearly 1000 people dead and it was completely denied. “No, nothing happened here. Nothing to see. Move along.” I was thinking about that, and then a swallow just flew over my head, and “I was lifted above all care”, as the song lyric goes. I’ve been working at the studios down at Yellow Arch on Kellum Island recently. You have to cross the River Don to get to the island. The first of those migrant birds that come back are sand martins, and in prodigious numbers, too. So you drive over that bridge and you’re just like, “Whoa, there they are!” And then gradually all the others follow along. I saw the first swallows this year while watching morris dancers on May Day.”

John Hardy

Jon Wilks, folk singer and editor of Tradfolk, standing by an old brick wall, holding an Atkin OM37 guitar.

Jon Wilks: “I mean, what is going on here? It manages to put the ‘rock’ in folk rock, while the intricate fingerpicking remains unmistakably Simpson. One of those tracks where the fun the musicians are having in the studio is as infectious as the song itself. I can’t listen to this without hopping a little.”

Martin: ‘John Hardy’ is one of those songs that I may have known forever. There are so many different versions of it. I wanted it to be really gritty and exciting and nasty, and that’s what it is. That’s a New Orleans rhythm section on the recording. Those guys were great.”

Dancing Shoes

Richard Hawley: “If I had absolutely to pick only one Martin Simpson song, it would be ‘Dancing Shoes’. Partly because I visited him many times during that period and was privileged to hear its growth and development, but mostly because it actually shows what a lovely man Martin is. The song is about his Mother, with whom he didn’t have the best relationship, to say the least. A hell of a lot of folks would use the vehicle of song to have a real angry dig and let latent emotion tear into someone under those circumstances, but Martins’s innate compassion used it to try and understand his mother and, dare I say it, even forgive her. That tells you a hell of a lot about the person I’m lucky enough to call a friend, and the calibre of man that he truly is. We all know what a brilliant musician and writer he is but that song showed me what a beautiful soul he is as well. I don’t think he plays it live much but it’s a hidden gem that one.”

Martin: “That’s my song about my mother. It’s real. The reality of how small her life was was brutal, you know? It was really brutal. We were clearing out her house after she died and I found a pair of shoes. I brought them home. They were immensely expensive and unworn. It was harsh.”

Shepherd’s Delight

Ben Walker discusses On Humber Bank with Jon Wilks

Ben Walker: “The way he plays it showcases real technique and refinement, and it’s a proper showstopper. It’s also one of the first things I learned to play DADGAD, and it’s one I like to pass on to other guitarists from time to time.”

Martin: “I wrote this as a DADGAD exercise to see if I could write a tune that had the same kind of fluidity that I was hearing when I listened to pipers and fiddle players. So it was consciously written to try and achieve that.”

Fair Annie

Angeline Morrison sits with an autoharp on the beach, playing The Sorrow Songs

Angeline Morrison: “The playing and singing are exquisite. He conveys the emotional complexity of the narrative with such tenderness. You are drawn right into the web of the story, feeling all the horror of Annie’s impossible situation… it’s rare to find such incredibly subtle storytelling.”

Folk singer Jackie Oates discusses The Sweet Nightingale song with Jon Wilks

Jackie Oates: “The guitar playing has that breathable, spacious feeling – it meanders and illustrates the lyrics of the song, adding to the pathos. There is an understated quality to the vocals, too, and the effect is very soothing and thought-provoking.”

Martin: “It’s one of my favourite ballads. Just an extraordinary story with a twist at the end. There’s a lot of very cruel behaviour in that song, but ultimately it manages to be positive, even though it ends with the burning of Lord Thomas. And it’s just a beautiful tune. As far as the guitar part goes, it’s really simple, but I think really expressive.”

Duncan & Brady

Ian A. Anderson: “I’d have to pick ‘Duncan & Brady’ as an example of one of Martin’s hooligan bangers.”

Martin: “It’s such a brutal thing. When I lived in New Orleans, I got to know some New Orleans policemen, and the picture of a policeman that this song paints is pretty much in keeping. The guitar part is really strong because it’s actually in Gsus4. Now, nobody plays blues or songster stuff in Gsus4, but it makes perfect sense to me and I really like it.”

The Sheffield Apprentice

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne: “Martin sings this one in his live sets accompanied on the banjo, and I got to know this arrangement first. The album version, which opens Purpose + Grace is a full band arrangement featuring (amongst others) Jon Boden on fiddle and Andy Cutting on melodeon. Solo voice with banjo is a musical setting I have always loved; though Martin is best known as a guitarist, he is a pretty hot banjo player as well, and this for me is among his best banjo playing. The way that Martin’s free-phrased vocals soar over the rolling banjo part, unfolding the song’s captivating story, is thrilling to hear. In the sleeve notes to the album, Martin credits Hedy West as providing the inspiration for his version of the song, and I will forever be thankful to Martin for bringing Hedy West’s music to my attention.”

Martin: “Hedy West is the answer. She just has this way of taking a song and making me go, ‘Fuck, that’s good. I’m going to have a go at that.'”

Little Musgrave

Louis Campbell: “I think the recording of Martin playing this at the Royal Albert Hall is an amazing example of his unique approach to groove, flow and rubato. The way it manages to stretch time in different directions separately between the voice and guitar gives a sense that everything could fall apart at any moment, although it is, of course, completely controlled. It’s just captivating, exciting and extremely Martin Simpson!”

Martin: “What I did when I played it at the Albert Hall demonstrates one of the major things that Hetty did for my singing – that thing of really pulling time. So she would be playing a completely driving, square accompaniment and just wait a minute, but that’s where the verse ends. But she’s not finished. And at the Albert Hall, I did that with Little Musgrave to the point where actually I nearly fainted because I was kind of like, seeing it. And the guitar part is over here and I’m about two verses ahead or behind. And it was just really me pushing the envelope in terms of doing that thing.”

Boots of Spanish Leather

Jim Moray discusses Tam Lin on the Old Songs Podcast

Jim Moray: “It’s the meeting point between the kind of guitar style he had working with June Tabor in the early 80s and the fluidity of phrasing that he developed living in America. The main riff feels like a tune in itself, but then works as a counterpoint to the vocal line.”

Martin: “That’s one of my favourite arrangements I ever did in my entire life. I learned that song when I was 15, probably, and I sang it and played it like Dylan. The way Dylan used the guitar on that was old-fashioned, kind of thumb and fingers kind of picking – beautifully done, lovely chordal harmonisation and stuff – but when I arranged this I was going through a period during which I refused to play that style. I’d just go miles out of my way to avoid playing regular American fingerpicking. My arrangement is a very odd piece of guitar playing, actually. It’s got a break in it, which is almost classical in construction, in a way. It took me months of working to get that arrangement to the point where I could play and sing it. And it’s another one where I can pull time forever.”

An Englishman Abroad

Lukas Drinkwater: “I would always choose an Englishman Abroad as my favourite song of Martin’s to intro people to him, as it shows his versatility and kind of spans his duality in English folk and American roots music. it’s just wonderful.”

Martin: “I love that song because it’s about a real human being and it has that thing that I really like to do of having different forms within the one song. So, it’s got two completely different melodies and sets of time in it… and it’s real.”

Swooping Molly

Andy Cutting: “An extraordinary piece of guitar playing. Rather throws down the gauntlet to anyone who thinks they can play. Great bit of music as well.”

Martin: “That’s a song that was written for love… and a really mad guitar piece! I mean, what was I thinking? I could have made life a lot easier for myself [laughs].”

Come Down Jehovah

Sam Grassie: “It drags me down like a slow river to somewhere calm. It’s perfectly played. Martin is a wizard.”

Martin: “I saw Chris Wood do that. I totally missed Chris Wood and Andy Cutting – I was living in the US when they were doing their thing. I saw Chris Wood do this song at Towersy years later. I went up to him afterwards and said, “Chris, man, that song, ‘Come Down Jehovah’ is fantastic. I’d really like to sing it. Can I get a copy of it?” And he said no [laughs]. Eventually, it came out on his record, so I just learned it from that. But that memory really amuses me.”

Joshua Gone Barbados

Ian A. Anderson: “If ‘Duncan & Brady’ is an example of one of his hooligan bangers, this one’s a great example of his melodic side.”

Martin: “I learned ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’ really early on. I bought an Eric Von Schmidt record called Eric Sings von Schmidt in a Woolworths record sale and I just went, “Oh… my… god! This song! This is it!” But I’d already heard it sung by Tom Rush. So that was a big influence there. And, as it happens, Tom Rush also sang a version of ‘Duncan & Brady’.

Rufford Park Poachers

Owen Shiers (Cynefin): “I love that banjo, but actually, it’s more about the vocal delivery – the way he drags it. It’s really classy, great storytelling, and a fine example of an English folk song. I’m secretly envious it’s not Welsh!”

Martin: “I absolutely love everything about that song. The background to it is amazing. It’s a true story from Mansfield, just down the road (Rufford Park is a wedding venue now in Sherwood Forest). It’s one of the pieces that I decided I would start to explore a fingerstyle, banjo style, which I love playing. It’s a brilliant song: true, and enormously entertaining, musically. Joseph Taylor sang it. It goes from major to minor all over the place – I really love those mad songs. They’re like, “whaaaat?”

Home Again

Mark Radcliffe: “I think touring is the dream when you’re young and such an adventure, but whenever I’m away I’m really looking forward to being ‘home again’, so this is the song for me.”

Martin: “Well, that’s a very important song to me, because it really does talk about the fact that I grew up in this town, which I really, really didn’t want to be in. But it’s not until you actually get away and you can look back that you realise how much where you grew up gave to you.”

Never Any Good

Jon Wilks, folk singer and editor of Tradfolk, standing by an old brick wall, holding an Atkin OM37 guitar.

Jon Wilks: “An incredible piece of narrative songwriting. The lines in which his father teaches him a love of nature, which he continues to celebrate to this day, are both beautifully poetic and emotionally raw. I first heard it shortly after I lost my own father, and it was incredibly cathartic. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.”

Martin: “I was thinking about this earlier. Pulp are just about to play at the Spar in Bridlington and I was reminded of a time I played this song at that venue, and I completely lost it. I suddenly remembered that my father had played and sung on that stage and I just broke down.”

Sky Dancers

Miranda Richardson: “Lovely, celebratory, mournful, and a simple plea. A song that encourages us to look.”

Martin: “That’s a brand new song. Chris Packham recently said to me, “If you ever want to use any of my photographs as an album sleeve, please get in touch.” And so I did… and it didn’t work. So when [forthcoming album] Nothing But Green Willow came up, I thought, maybe he’s got some shots of willows. But he didn’t. However, he commissioned me to write ‘Sky Dancers’ and I just sent him a message last week saying, “Chris, what about hen harriers? Have you got any shots?” And he did! So he’s going to send me shots of hen harriers and I’m hoping that I’ll get to use one of his photographs on the sleeve, which would be fabulous.”

Pans of Biscuits

Nancy Kerr

Nancy Kerr: “For me, this is a beautiful example of the kind of linear/arpeggiated accompaniment that Martin crafts so well. Deceptively direct but (of course) fiendishly complex, while still staying true to the shape and drive of the original song – it never crowds it out. Plus it’s a fabulous snapshot of depression-era political satire!”

Martin: “This is from the new Magpie Arc record, but it’s one of the many songs that I’ve learned from Hedy West. It’s a brilliant little song. It’s a parody, and it’s ‘Palms of Victory’, which is a hymn. During the Depression, this whole idea of “you’ll have pie in the sky when you die” came along, which was basically people saying, “don’t worry about your extreme poverty because when you go to heaven, it’s all going to be all right.” There are so many of those songs.