“My family’s house in Scunthorpe was far from being the jolliest place to grow up at times, but one of my strongest memories is of the way that music cleared the air and dispersed all of the overhanging negativity. There are a series of records that spring to mind: first was the great Paul Robeson singing spirituals with just piano accompaniment. My heart was opened by those songs, I didn’t know why, I just felt a mixture of melancholy and simultaneous elation; it remains one of the most precious feelings to this day. I wanted to be part of the process. I’d seen my father sing in The Desert Song at the age of three, and that had showed me another aspect of the power of this singing business. When my dad came to school assemblies and carol services, and joined in with the hymns, it was almost as if no one else was singing. I wanted to be doing that, shining above the choir!
“My two older brothers, Geoff and Simon, were the sources of a great deal of my musical education. Geoff bought 78s in the mid to late 50s, and the semi-hysterical performances of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had a massive effect on my six- or seven-year-old self. There was jazz too, Louis Armstrong seemed to me to be one of the loveliest people I had ever heard, whether singing or playing, he seemed to be aiming affection in my direction.
“A couple of years later I heard Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy for the first time, and my ears awoke to the guitar. From then on it was a succession of songs that got me more and more hooked. There was Barbara Allen which I learned in junior school music class, such a huge story in such a small setting… I fell in love with story songs, John Henry I learned to sing long before I could play anything, and Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter songs were fantastic – a cowboy film in six verses. At ten I wanted to play guitar… by this time I’d heard Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio, I was studying pictures on the backs of record sleeves to see who was cooler looking, the guitarist or the banjo player.
“My parents were very reluctant to buy me a guitar, it was the Beatles era, and they were pretty much persona non grata in my house. The non military haircut didn’t go down well with my dad, and it was clearly a passing fad… The fact that I cared little for the Beatles or the Stones, compared to Josh White and Peter Paul and Mary was irrelevant… there wasn’t enough money to waste on a fad. I continued to fall ever deeper in love with the music, and then started to attempt to convert my toys into musical instruments. A plastic boat strung up with fishing line was my most successful experiment.
“In 1965 at Christmas my uncle Eric and brother Geoff bought me a second-hand classical guitar. It was the not inconsiderable sum of £8, I later learned. I spent Christmas afternoon playing The Last Post which I figured out all on my own. It was eventually stopped rather forcefully as our next door neighbour’s mother had died on Christmas Eve and I was reinforcing the rather tangible sense of mortality with my constant, if shaky, performances. Too late for me, I was completely hooked.”
Thanks to Martin Simpson for the latest in our series of artist blogs. Martin’s album Purpose + Grace came out on Topic Records on 5th September. Listen to Martin talking about it on Mike Harding’s show on BBC Radio 2 on 7th September, available for the next 6 days via the iPlayer and catch him on tour until early December.
No shows booked at the moment.