Martin Simpson,
Prodigal Son
(Topic/Compass, 2007)

As British folksinger/guitarists go, Martin Carthy casts a long shadow in which other British folk singers and guitarists all too easily get lost. Another Martin, last name Simpson, who's been on the scene since the early 1970s, has always been a respected figure (as both solo performer and back-up guitarist, most notably to June Tabor), but he never attained the wide recognition he deserved. After Prodigal Son nobody who cares about traditional music in the early 21st century is going to be able, or to want, to remain oblivious to his presence. Another giant is now astride the landscape.

This is a dark album, suited to listening on gloomy, cold winter nights. Or so I, who have been listening to it on gloomy, cold winter nights, find it. Aside from a few moody, expressive instrumentals (most dramatically the original "She Slips Away," capturing echoes of both Mississippi Delta and India on lap-slide), Simpson has assembled what is mostly a ballad collection. The bulk of it is from the Anglo-Celtic tradition, a few from the American, among them the African-American "Duncan & Brady" (from an actual murder in 1890s-era St. Louis). Because of the many triumphs Son rises to, it is with an uneasy sense of the churlish that I observe Simpson's reading does not add measurably to its inspiration, the late Dave Van Ronk's, which has marked the gold standard since Van Ronk's first recording of it in the 1950s. Nor is another American song, the hobo lament "Good Morning, Mr. Railroad Man" (a.k.a. "Danville Girl") -- Simpson learned it from Ry Cooder (it's on his 1972 Boomer's Story) -- much more than ordinarily entertaining.

Where Son works most strikingly is in Simpson's arrangements of antique ballads that, in the fashion of great art, employ tragedy and violence to illuminate the experience of being human in a world that seems determined to kill us. One that will catch your attention right off is "Lakes of Champlain," which is the centuries-old Irish "Lakes of Coolfin/Lakes of Shillin" set in North America though otherwise unchanged. (Were there "keepers of game" in early America?) The story is simple enough -- a young man vows, against stern contrary advice, to go swimming in dangerous waters and drowns -- but Simpson affords the narrative a kind of epic aura, albeit in an oddly sprightly arrangement driven by Andy Cutting's accordion.

"Little Musgrave" -- the Child ballad (#81) better known today as "Matty Groves," which evolved into the Appalachian lyric folksong "Shady Grove" -- is set to a finger-picked guitar arrangement that propels the narrative as surely as Doc Watson and Fairport Convention did in their very different versions. An even more disturbing tale is told in "Andrew Lammie" (Child #233, otherwise known as "Mill o' Tifty's Annie"), atop a dirgelike melody that rolls on for more than nine minutes, leaving the listener exhausted but also curiously exhilarated. While the lyrics unhurriedly offer up the particulars of a shocking, brutal episode, the melody is so beautiful, and so perfectly arranged, that one falls deeply inside it. In fact, I didn't know its length until, after a hearing or two, I happened to look for it in the song list on the back cover. For me the experience revived a question that occurred to me once as I was listening to the American murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio" -- why do songs recounting evil events so often get melodies that feel angelic?

Long ago, Simpson was a banjo player, and he returns to the instrument in a charming take on "Pretty Crowing Chicken," the Appalachian ballad most famously associated with North Carolina's Frank Proffitt, though there are no words in Simpson's. In the notes, however, he wryly quotes the ballad's punchline: "The chicken proved false-hearted." There are false hearts a-plenty, and broken ones, too, all over Prodigal Son, a stroll through darkness, a picture from life's other side, and -- one might add -- something of a stone masterpiece.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 January 2008

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