Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"100 Greats in 100 Days" #067: Martin Simpson, Prodigal Son

This record will break your heart.

Of course, that is part of what traditional music has always done: it helps people mourn, just as it helps them celebrate, give birth, be born, and die. Martin Simpson has made a lot of great records—or great single tracks—in his career, not only on his own discs but also as a hired-gun/accompanist on others’ records (his work with June Tabor is a complete benchmark both in her career and in the Revival’s generation of English traditional singers). His is a particularly rich and particularly idiosyncratic artistic lineage: the line of descent from the insights of Nic Jones and Martin Carthy; their inheritances from Roscoe Holcomb and Jinky Wells and Bob Roberts, and the influence of A.L. Lloyd’s looping, asymmetrical, odd-meter realizations of traditional song; the astonishing free-spinning accompaniments and floating vocal phrasing of Nic Jones; the spooky, stark, wandering accompaniments and wispy singing of Skip James and the slide ruminations of Blind Willie Johnson. Simpson’s a fine frailing banjo player and that instrument’s uniquely West-African approach to picking (downstrokes on the downbeat with the index fingernail, thumb trailing on the short drone string on the offbeats) informs his approach to the guitar as well—he finds the polyrhythmic vocabularies, the modal bends and slurs, that link across barriers of time, space, and ethnicity, between traditional English song and African-American blues. He was a schoolboy-prodigy banjo- and guitar-player in the ‘70s English folksong revival, but has continued to develop ever since, particularly in company with other like-minded “avant-traditionalists”—in this respect, his time living in the Finger Lakes region of New York (an old, old part of North American cultural history, reaching back to Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper, to the Iroquois Nation and Uncas and Chingachcook) was probably particularly important. It’s a beautiful part of the country, full of forests and hills and waterfalls, and the folds and wrinkles in the landscape would seem to mirror the twists and turns in Simpson’s own playing.

I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, in a beautiful old colonial town with a long and honorable lineage of working-class, blue-collar, farming-and-fishing culture, which was (although we didn’t know the term at the time) rapidly being gentrified into a Boston bedroom community. There were still families running their own personal lobster traps, people still cleaned fish on the wharves down the street from my house, kids like me still worked the fishing and lobster boats, but the harbor was rapidly being taken over by ugly fiberglass weekend toys, and the high-school by guys whose sum total in life was to be a yacht broker and have a winter skiing condo at Mt Sunapee.

It wasn’t a lifestyle or culture I cared for, but I was lucky enough to hear Mississippi Delta blues and Irish traditional music, played live in a room, the summer I was 14, first at the me & thee Coffeehouse and then at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in Marblehead (more probably at the latter, which had a much hipper and more discerning booking policy). When you’re that age, and bright, and bored snotless by the culture you‘re growing up in, and you hear real traditional music, played and sung by someone sitting eight away from you in a small room, it does something—it can rearrange the organs inside your body, move around the molecules and synapses inside your brain, and you’re not the same thereafter.

I sure wasn’t. The summer of 1974 changed who I was, and who I wanted to be. It took me years, and many twists and turns and peaks and valleys and folds and wrinkles, but the early imprint stayed with me. I heard the links between the two great musics I loved: black blues and white trad music—the voices of poor people who fought to retain a sense of themselves.

Prodigal Son features a cast of graying old friends, a modal chamber ensemble of strings and winds, and a few famous types lending voice here and there, who understand that the very greatest virtuosity is the virtue of knowing what to leave out. And it’s full of the eloquent guitar fireworks that have always distinguished Simpson’s recordings.

One of the unexpected pleasures of Simpson’s later career, however, has been the way he has gradually discovered a distinctive and expressive voice as a singer. He was always a fantastic guitar-slinger, able to adopt others’ versions of songs and adapt to others’ singing, and make his playing part of the bigger picture. But it would almost seem as if it took him the 30 years from his first recordings (1976, for the legendary and omniscient Bill Leader’s Topic label) to find his approach as a vocalist. When he sings, you can certainly hear Bert Lloyd, and Carthy, and Tabor—but you can also hear Skip and Willie and Nick Dow and Nic Jones. Maybe all those years as an accompanist to genius vocalists meant that, when he finally stepped forward as a singer on his own, that voice would emerge fully fledged.

Taking off from Tabor’s earlier model in her award-winning 2004 An Echo of Hooves, Simpson on this record goes back to the marrow of his own tradition, the “big ballads” of the English and Scottish borders. In these performances, of the songs he probably heard as a Lincolnshire schoolboy and a guitar-picker-for-hire in the early ‘70s folk clubs of London, you hear all the older elements, all the other influences, all the source voices, coming through in his own.

That voice is there throughout this record: absolutely distinctive, completely masterful, utterly ageless:

In his beautifully understated version of “Batchelor’s Hall,” a rueful American song from Appalachia, based in a Thomas Moore text from the mid-19th century. Moore’s Merrie Melodies was one of the most popular printed music collections in America, one of the first to collect traditional Irish song melodies (albeit with new texts by Moore) in commercial form, and it found its way into an awful lot of middle-class parlors and Appalachian hollers;

In “Pretty Crowing Chicken,” a triumphal return to his frailing banjo days, an Appalachian tune related to the standard “Greasy Coat”, and which comes to Simpson through the North Carolina singer Hattie Presnell and the great Frank Profitt, where he’s accompanied by a magnificent trans-Atlantic chamber ensemble of Barrie Phillips’s cello, Danny Thompson’s arco bass, and Andy Cutting’s melodeon;

“The Lakes of Champlain,” a North American version of a song that comes from Scan Tester, originally, but versions of which by Jones and Carthy both seem to inform Simpson’s. His version is swifter, and more dance-like, and more driven by his percussive frailing guitar, but equally powerful and wistful;

“The Granemore Hare,” which begins with a stunning taksim­-style free-time improvisation, that evokes Simpson’s collaboration on Water Lily with David Hidalgo, Viji Krishnan, and Srinivasan. This version, which owes a debt to versions by Steeleye Span (poor) and Dervish (magnificent), is sung much more freely, with the voice driving the phrasing and expression, and it captures, better than any of those other versions, the mournful sadness that lurks under the most fervent propounding of blood sports—and which lurks there because they are, ultimately, about suffering;

It’s there equally in Simpson’s “Little Musgrave,” which is based in Nic Jones’s earlier guitar/vocal version, but which has the balls to take on Christy Moore’s much-better-known version with Planxty—and win. And in his “Louisiana 1927,” Randy Newman’s bitter elegy to the greed and negligence that gave us the 1927 Levee Break ignored by Silent Cal Coolidge, and the 2005 ethnic cleansing of Katrina engineered by the sociopathic Karl Rove (the Goebbels of the Bush Administration) and George W Bush (the homophobic towel-snapping pledge-branding cheerleader for fraternities and war crimes). Simpson’s version of "Louisiana" takes off from Aaron Neville’s--easily the gutsiest programming decision on the disc--and, like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of Voodoo Child, fails to match that archetype (whose could? it's Aaron fucking Neville, for Christ's sake!)—but succeeds nevertheless as an honorable and courageous homage.

That grainy, expressive voice is even there in the instrumentals—the Renaissance dance piece “La Rivolte”, driven by Cutting’s melodeon and Phillips’s cello, and Simpson's own “Kit’s Tune,” which opens his version of Jan Struther’s great alternative lullaby, “When a Knight Won His Spurs”, set to the Baptist hymn tune STOWEY.

It’s there in the mournful resignation and gratitude of “She Slips Away,” an instrumental on the death of his mother, where the slow, sad keening of the slide says things no words could, and puts Simpson within hollering distance of the Heroes’ Hall where sit Blind Willie Johnson and Duane Allman, drinking whiskey, jamming on “Little Martha,” and telling stories about their mamas.

It’s there, most particularly and most heart-breakingly, in the disc’s centerpiece, the nine-minute Andrew Lammie, in which, like his mentor June Tabor, Simpson himself finally trusts his own expressive vocal skills to tell the stark tragedy of “Miller Tifty’s Annie,” who in the Beckettian brevity of the big ballads dies (is killed) simply for loving and being loved by the wrong man. There are no frills in the narrative and the accompaniment reflects that, building with sad inevitability over the bed of Cutting’s melodeon, only gradually adding Simpson’s slide and the balance of the consort.

Lord Fyvie had a trumpeter
By the name o’ Andrew Lammie
He had the art tae win the heart
O’ Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie

It’s not “like” a Greek tragedy, building from a single tragic error to an inevitable denouement. It is tragedy, of the particularly rooted and hard-eyed sort known to country people, who understand that suffering is eternal and ubiquitous, that not only gods or nobles, but poor people too, experience the pain of love that cannot win through. It has the darkness of Skip’s “Devil Got My Woman,” the measured, inured loneliness of Roscoe Holcomb’s “Wayfaring Stranger;” the tight-lipped cold rage against privilege and power of Tabor’s “Duke of Athole’s Nurse,” and Carthy’s “Famous Flower of Serving Men”;

“The first time me and my love met
“Twas in the woods o’ Fyvie
He ca’d me ‘Mistress’, I said ‘No
I was Tifty’s Bonnie Annie’”

One of the biggest misconceptions about traditional music—hell, about traditional culture—amongst those who don’t really know about it, is to presume that “tradition” and “experiment” are mutually exclusive phenomena. “Traditional” is not the same thing as “conservative” and “conservative” does not mean—at least, outside the psychotic delusions of the American political Right—an opposition to experiment, or to revolution. You can seek a revolution in order to overturn hateful new ways, to try to recover wiser old ways.

The best traditional music, as with dance, folk theater, and story-telling, is both abstract and concrete, both ancient and modern, at the same time. This is because no-one who lives close to the earth, the seasons, and the natural world can escape both the concrete details—the muck, blood, discomfort, damp, hunger, and cold—that the world contains. But neither can you avoid the mystery, beauty, visceral emotion, and sense of cosmic connection that living so close to that natural world creates. As Henry Glassie puts it, in his great Passing the Time in Ballymenone, a book like Ulysses or a play like Godot are both experimental and “traditional”: the mysteries and rituals of the natural world and of the human experience within each can be deeply symbolic and archetypal, and at the same time gritty with the human stink and physical textures of birth, sex, and death. Hence, Ulysses or Godot, or Gary Snyder's Axe Handles or Ginsberg's bardic Kaddish or Moby Dick or any/every other "modernist" work rooted in tradition, need not be "greater than" or "opposed to" tradition--it can be be a continuation, a new manifestation, of that tradition.

“Tradition” is a process—not an object: the process by which people over forty millennia of human culture (less the last 250 years of widespread literacy and the Industrial Revolution) have passed along knowledge, insight, and history down through the human generations. The difference between traditional culture and contemporary post-industrial culture is that traditional culture is grounded in the world as it is and has been, and post-industrial culture in the world as it is represented and fantasized. We are taught—we are programmed—to the fantasy: to believe that the only lives worth noting are those of the packaged media personalities whose foibles—personal, political, financial, and reproductive—are “real”, and that all other lives are somehow less real, less valuable. How else explain the Paris Hilton’s of the world, who have no talent beyond the (very real, but demagogic) talent of being noticeable?

The lessons of traditional culture, of the traditional process, are those of the “long memory”—of the human capacity that remembers when to plant, when to reap, when to marry, how to birth a child, how to choose a leader, how to read the sky and the ground and the behavior of the myriad other sentient beings who share Gaia with us and will still teach us how to live, if we will just shut the fuck up. And listen.

The great poet Gary Snyder managed to find the watersheds, flora, and fauna in Manhattan and San Francisco, just as present and just as eternal in those riverine cities as on the San Juan Ridge in the Yuba River bioregion, under the streets of Kyoto and on the volcanic ridges of Suwano-Se Island. The point is that the natural world is not absent from our post-industrial media-saturated existence—it is only obscured under the avalanche of shit designed to separate us from nature, the cycle of the seasons and the planets, and from our own bodies’ experiences—of birth and death, sex and death, and the mysterious visceral processes of being human. We are all—still—traditional beings.

This is what Martin Simpson finds on this record: the eternalities of traditional song: the way that—regardless of time period or language—the modality of the melodies, the grain of the traditional voice, and the eternal archetypes of the stories told, are both ancient and post-modern, both “conservative” and deeply radical. These stories were as true, their telling as stark, in the Scottish Borders, as they later were in the high hills of Southern Appalachia; in the Mississippi Delta as they were in the rich paddies of Okinawa. And these stories and songs speak to intuitions and visceral human knowings that, no matter how deeply buried under media, materialism, and the endless chattering noise of a culture that says “Forget! Don’t think! Buy shit! Sit down! Shut off! Be afraid! Do what you’re told!”, are still there. Joe Cooley said “this music can bring us to our senses”; Bob Dylan said “you can learn everything you need to know from traditional music.”

These knowings are still there, to be found in embedded in the genetic code of these ancient, and eternal, and traditional, and deeply contemporary songs: beneath the avalanche of information, past the calluses we grow upon our skin, deep in the marrow of the human consciousness.

This record speaks—and sings—to that marrow.

Now playing: Martin Simpson - Andrew Lammie


masbrow said...

Great post, Chris.
It was 1988 when I took two workshops from Martin at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, MD. One was an overview of open tunings in which he laid out 8 or 9 tunings, all of which he was conversant with. The second was on his signature "guitar frailing" technique, probably the coolest way of playing guitar I have ever seen. I was blown away by his musicianship, originality, knowledge of traditional music from both sides of the Atlantic, and his care and patience as a teacher. I'm still drawing from what I learned in those few hours almost 20 years ago.
Definitely deserving of a spot in your 100!

CJS said...

thanks for the comments. I actually encountered Simpson's guitar approach through a former student of mine, who came back after a couple of lessons with MS and had made a huge leap in originality of conception. Only much later connected Mark's progress and the great guitar playing on the Simpson/Tabor sides.

Shannon said...

Fabulous post. I just obtained the album and I am blown away. Thanks for another great lead.

Chris said...

Glad you're digging the disc--and thanks for the kind words.