More than any British folk singer of his ilk (Nic Jones, Jon Tams, Kate Rusby), Martin Simpson has striven to reconnect the strands between folk music on either side of the Atlantic. He’s been able to make such connections over the course of single albums or even, as with the interplay between Kate Rusby’s harmony vocal and Simpson’s bottleneck guitar on “Never Any Good,” a single song. Connections that elsewhere might take years and numerous performers to come to light (Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Jarosz in a Colorado forest finishing the story Kate Rusby started thirteen years before with “Some Tyrant”; Bob Dylan going perhaps further than even Nic Jones into “Canadee-I-O”) are second nature to Simpson.
So here, diving headfirst into the rowdiest, most ludicrous, most intoxicated, most downtrodden folk music with Dom Flemons (erstwhile of Carolina Chocolate Drops now touring and recording incessantly as the self-anointed “American Songster”), he may be in his most natural habitat. Mainly recorded live on their Autumn tour last year, “A Selection of Ever Popular Favourites” is more an exercise in crate-digging than in anthropology and as a modern immersion in old forms, it rivals anything from Bob Dylan’s “World Gone Wrong” to R. Crumb’s “Heroes of The Blues” trading cards.
The aura they aim for on most of the material here is the rough, drunken farce of obscure twenties and thirties folk and blues music. Musicians whose names mean nothing, except to those for whom they mean everything: Whistler and His Jug Band; Peg Leg Howell; Charlie Poole; Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers; Bunt Stephens. Music that sounded like, in Bob Dylan’s words, “moonshine gone berserk, fast cars on dirt roads.” That’s the sound on much of the best music here: a runaway-train version of “John Hardy”; the proto-Howlin’ Wolf boast of “My Money Never Runs Out”; best of all a lurid reading of the Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’.”
Compared to Simpson’s years of plugging away, Flemons’ ascent, since Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2010 breakthrough “Genuine Negro Jig,” has been meteoric. Rhiannon Giddens was the band’s incendiary leader, but it was obvious to anyone who listened that each member was equally important and equally smart about folk music. Simpson couldn’t wish for a better sideman to bridge any remaining gaps in his affinity with American music.
On “Stealin’” he starts nervously, Will Shade’s near-90-year-old performance hanging over every self-conscious syllable, until Flemons emerges, shrieking an absurd falsetto harmony. Flemons’ instinctive feel for what the song needs, demands, breaks the performance wide open, and it ends as it should: a drunken leer. Simpson takes “John Hardy” and “Little Sadie,” two of the most American songs imaginable, at breakneck speed, it’s Flemons’ backing (on harmonica and bones respectively) that pushes him every step.
When Flemons takes lead vocals, his antecedents are clear: Mississippi John Hurt on “Pay Day”; Skip James on “If I Lose” and “Too Long” (“I was able to reveal my inner Skip James on this one” Flemons writes in the impassioned, esoteric liner notes. The Skip James voice, high, far away, floating in then vanishing like mist, is among the most singular sounds in recorded music. Often attempted since James was rediscovered in the early sixties, it’s almost never been recaptured: Jack Bruce didn’t get it when Cream recorded James’ “I’m So Glad” in 1966, but Eric Clapton did when they recorded “Strange Brew” a year later, and here, Flemons gets it too.) But no tracing of lineage can account for the ruptures Flemons’ musical eccentricities tear in the uniformity of the music: an electric kettle played as a jug on “Stealin’”; the crazed hermit vocal of “Coalman Blues” (in the most inspired moment of the liner notes, Simpson calls this Peg Leg Howell obscurity “a wonderful movie short (…) a Southern prototype for Raymond Chandler”, and he’s right); or how on Henry Thomas’ “Bulldoze Blues” he plays the quills, Thomas’ signature instrument, with the exuberance of Little Walter playing harmonica.
For all the immediacy of the music, the sense that there’s no line between the world these songs were born from and the world they inhabit today, the deepest and most convincing moments are when the music sounds at its oldest. On “Little Sadie,” Simpson’s Appalachian deadpan is pitch perfect, the line “I went right home, and I went to bed,” might be the scariest on the album because it makes you believe that’s all you’d do after killing someone. But the line that turns the world upside down comes when the killer is approached by the police officer. In most versions, he breaks down: crushed by guilt, confessing instantly. Here the deadpan is immovable, and the boldfaced lie told with a straight face: “’Young man, is your name Brown? I believe you’re the man shot your woman down.”/I said “No, sir. My name is Robert E. Lee.”
Hedy West sang it this way. Other than Simpson she’s the only singer I’ve ever heard who lays the blame for the murder at the feet of the Confederate General. West claimed to have learned it from a miner called Hobart Smith, her acknowledgement of him the only evidence he ever existed. What Simpson does with this performance is to reignite a mystery you could spend a lifetime on.
With the stoic factory worker’s lament “Short Time Come Again No More,” “a British parody” of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” the action migrates back across the Atlantic. The song moves with the same inescapable sorrow of “Hard Times,” partly due to the melody, partly the same pained, dragged-out vowels. Moving slowly forward with the same hunger and resignation, the crowd joining in on the choruses with the same ghostliness of the crowd at The Gaslight in 1963, joining in with Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain” , the crowd at the 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival, joining in with Kate Rusby’s “Blooming Heather.”
But the best may be the last. On “Buckeye Jim” all the components are perfectly executed and poised. As it plays, with the clear tranquility of Bascom Lamar Lunsford in Simpson’s banjo, the wide-eyed wonderment of Chubby Parker in Flemons’ vocal, it communicates a simplicity so pure it defies understanding. The simplicity casts the album that preceded it in a new light. “Stealin’” or “Coalman Blues,” which may initially seem arcane, parochial, rural, are, next to “Buckeye Jim” practically urban in their sophistication and modernity.
On a Blind Willie Johnson tribute released earlier this year, the performers killed Johnson’s wildness dead with their piety. That Flemons and Simpson can rework and revive the tensions and turmoils that fester in blues and folk music is the deepest tribute a musician can pay to their forebears, as well as the only way to bring those ghosts back to life.
Ever Popular Favourites is released via Fledg’ling Records on 7 October 2016
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