On Episode 8 of American Songster Radio, host Dom Flemons speaks with his recent musical collaborator, the legendary English guitarist Martin Simpson.
Dom Flemons and Martin Simpson have worked together since 2014, when the pair received a joint commission from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Since then, they’ve completed multiple duo tours and released Ever Popular Favourites, an album that celebrates the longstanding mutual influence of British and American music.
In the following Q & A, Flemons responds to questions from American Songster Radio co-producer Joe O’Connell about the experience of touring with Simpson in the UK.
Dom, can you provide American Songster Radio listeners with a sketch of what your tours with Martin were like? Where did these trips take you? How did the two of you get around? And what kinds of venues did you play?
Martin and I have now done three tours together. The first tour started at the Cecil Sharp House in London. We had spoken on the phone about the material we wanted to try out and this first meeting was more or less a jam session to see what songs we could put together. Out of the 30 or so songs we had discussed we came up with about 18 songs that we thought would work in the course of five hours!
On the first tour it was just Martin and I with Martin driving his little hatchback car with us and the instruments piled in. On the second tour, knowing we wanted to record it, we added engineer Andy Bell and his recording board to the mix. We were squashed in there but we made the time go by with jokes and good humor.
We traveled to quite a few places in the UK. London, of course, but we went to Liverpool, Manchester and Shoreham-By-The-Sea. We also went to Wales and several other places. The rooms were of all sizes. We did performing arts centers as well as small theaters and renovated music halls. One hall in Selby actually had old play bills for when they used to screen Charlie Chaplin's films in the 1920s.
The third tour in 2016 found us doing some wonderful festivals, great outdoor summer festival which are always pleasant.
As for the shows, we just get up there and do our thing, which suits us both just fine.
In Episode 8, you mention being blown away by the enthusiasm of Martin’s fans. Did touring with such a beloved British musician provide a different, “insider” perspective on the UK?
Mostly I was blown away by the sheer volume of Martin's work. Having known about him through the finger style guitar world I hadn't realized that he has written and recorded such a wealth of material spanning many decades.
This of course makes me feel humble to have a chance to work with him.
With that in mind, I am so pleased when people in the audience notice that our collaboration is something new for them. When I sing over Martin's playing, he and I can bring out different tricks in our hat that we might not do in a solo show.
One example is on the song "Bulldoze Blues." At one of the shows, a fan of Martin's came up shocked, as Martin plays the song in standard tuning. Martin has spent a great deal of his career exploring different tunings and the guy couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The tour really reaffirmed my desires to keep going and creating great music. Best part is that the two of us are just as pleased to hear the music as our audiences because we are both having a blast!
I understand that the “Brexit” vote took place during one of the tours. How did you see musicians and fans in the folk scene addressing this issue and the current dividedness of UK politics?
So the story goes that I landed in the UK the day that David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister. I had just assumed that my trip to the UK would be a vacation or a time to be away from the media fiasco but I was wrong. The whole world is changing in this new post-digital age. The people I met on my tour were sort of holding their breath and seeing what will happen next.
Music will always reflect society. That's how it goes. There will always be audiences ready to hand the mic to a singer who nails it on the head with their message.
As for people's ways of addressing the issues, I would say it is comparable to US politics at the moment. There is a lot of change going on and it is creating divides between families and friends. Of course as an entertainer, I hear every point of view. Some people think that immigration is out of control. Some think it’s great that there are new faces in the crowd. Combined with some of the other horrible incidents that have happened internationally, I see the first inklings of terrorist phobia like we had in the early 21st in the States.
That is not to say that people aren't doing anything. Like the US, there is a flourishing of the younger generations taking over the businesses that were once considered old and obsolete. The millennial generation is hungry to shake things up. They are moving away from the cities and moving to country and they are changing the cities with their desire to make things better on a day to day basis.
A lot of your work highlights alternative histories of American culture. Along with your peers, you’ve had a huge effect on the public perception of old-time American music, who plays it, and where it comes from. Do you see musicians of your generation making similar contributions to traditional and folk music in the UK?
Of course! The English folk scene has sustained itself over the years. In the United States, we did away with folk clubs. Once rock music took over in the mid-late 1960's it took over all of popular music, including the venues. Folk music slowly slipped into the sidelines only to be associated with Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters of the 70's who followed his lead. The venues disappeared and were replaced by stadium shows which aren't the best venues for small folk acts.
In England, it’s a different story. Two scenes, rock and folk, have had a strong relationship as two separate genres that have overlap.
I'm just one musician and spokesperson out of many from each community.
For the uninitiated listener, where do you recommend starting with Martin’s back-catalog? Is there a definitive album that you feel is the right place to begin exploring his work?
On the most recent tour I came across Martin's debut record, Grinning In Your Face, in a record store. The album features Martin tackling a variety of material. From the title track, which originally comes from Son House, to Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin' Heart,” the albums shows Martin crafting masterful arrangements to each of these classic songs.
As we discuss in the show, Martin got quite a bit of pushback from playing such a broad blanket of material. He was told to choose one or the other. This is an excellent start for Martin as well as the inquiring listener. I would also recommend Martin's recent collaboration with the Full English and the Elizabethan Sessions for a different side of his musical personality.
Check out a video of Dom and Martin performing in Manchester, England in October of 2015: