MARTIN SIMPSON – Skydancers (Topic TXCD613)

SkydancersA seemingly moveable feast, Hen Harrier Day (which draws awareness to the illegal hunting of these birds, named for their former habit of preying on free-ranging fowl) is part of Hen Harrier Action, a website which celebrates and protects the wildlife of our uplands, the title song, ‘Skydancers’, being commissioned by Wildlife TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham, Simpson, an avid bird watcher, borrowing the first line of the chorus, “The bird completes the skyline”, from a comment by his neighbour Richard Hawley, on watching birds flying past while they sat drinking. In the song, he reminisces on his teenage experiences with other birds, such as curlews, red kites and oak eggers and that “an empty sky is a heartbreak, so what is it to be, a pale ash grey skydancer or this wasteful cruelty?

The album featuring contributions from accordionist Andy Cutting, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Ben Nicholls on string bass, cellist Liz Hanks and Louis Campbell on guitars with Tim van Eyken and Rosie Hood among the backing singers, the first of the covers is an American pastoral dreamy, cello-coloured take on ‘New Harmony’, a song by late old time musician Craig Johnson and written during and after a winter road trip through Indiana, thinking of his father and grandfather.

There’s five arrangements of traditionals, first up being a jaunty romp through the mid-18th century broadside ballad ‘Alan Tyne Of Harrow’, a gallows goodbye in which the condemned highwayman seeks to justify his actions as sort of Robin Hood and includes a reference to Ned Fielding, brother of Tom Jones author Henry Fielding, who, part of a prototype police force, had a sideline in selling horses to criminals.

That, in turn, is followed by the banjo-based lament ‘Tom Sherman’s Barroom’, a variation on ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ aka ‘The Dying Cowboy’, learnt from the New Lost City Ramblers, the lyrics about a cowboy dying alone incorporating the refrain from the similarly themed ‘Streets Of Laredo’ (as well as ‘Green Fields Of France’).

Opening with a shanty air, ‘Lowlands/Billy Walker’ is credited as traditional but, in fact the song part is by Simpson, a straightforward account written in response to a Guardian article by Tony Montague (Maz O’Connor penned a similar tribute of the same name) about the Black American sailor who joined the British Navy in 1811, his first ship a transport vessel captained by Jane Austen’s brother John, going on to become a petty officer. His career ended when he fell from the topmost yards and lost his left leg at the knee, after which, as fiddler, dancer and singer, he became a famous London street musician and even a character in a play about the slums of the time and the relationships between rich and poor, his depiction a lowlife and a criminal, however, leading to him being proclaimed a beggar and prohibited from busking, dying in the St Giles hospital workhouse. The main musical theme inspired by Uncle Dave Macon’s late 1920’s recording of ‘Sail Away Ladies’, and ending with mournful cello and a final a cappela refrain, it’s followed by a Simpson banjo instrumental, ‘Roger’s Cascade’, named in honour of his friend Roger Bucknall who crafted a 5-string neck for his 1925 Gibson Mastertone Granada Plectrum banjo.

It’s back to covers with Nancy Kerr’s ‘Fragile Water’, a song about gender fluidity, transition and transformation, inspired by Orkney folk song ‘The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry’, who taught it to Simpson and Cutting before recording it on her Instar album, the version here a lovely fusion of acoustic guitar and cello.

A little late for Easter perhaps, but ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’, played fingerpicked-style and stemming from the Apocraypha where the tree is a palm (re-specied to suit the English version), the lyric telling how, learning his wife’s pregnant, Joseph has a strop when she asks him to pick some cherries, the embryonic Jesus then getting the branches to bow down. Simpson recorded it for ‘Trees A Crowd’, a podcast on British native trees and added three extra verses from the Child’s collection.

The final cover, and one I’m surprised he’s not tackled before, is a nigh six-minute cello and steel shaded, fingerpicked rendition of ‘Deportee’, a slight lyrical tweaking of Woody Guthrie’s final – and never recorded by him – song detailing the 1948 plane crash that took the lives of Mexican migrant workers and the subsequent dehumanisation in the reports, though its side comment on the deliberate spoiling of the crops to keep farm production low and prices high is rarely mentioned, a timely chiming with Tory and Trump policies.

The album ends with one last traditional, a contemplative instrumental arrangement for guitar of ‘Donal Og’ (‘Young Donal’), a setting of an eighth-century Irish lament of loss, but those wanting more will be delighted to know there a bonus second disc of eight live solo recordings from late 2022 to early 2023which includes a near seven-minute vocal version alongside the traditional numbers ‘Leaves Of Life’, which he first recorded as an instrumental, ‘In The Pines’ and ‘Flash Company’, another from Craig Johnson (‘Yew Piney Mountains’), a revisiting of ‘Ridgeway’ off his Trails & Tribulations album, another song about trees, and two further cover, a sprightly fingerpicked blues scamper through Dylan’s ‘Buckets Of Rain’ and album closer, Joni Mitchell’s 1968 song ‘Cactus Tree’ from Songs To A Seagull about the tug between wanting love and freedom. A masterful collection from a master of his craft, Skydancers absolutely soars.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Skydancers’ – official video: