Finger-picking good: the English folk musician Martin Simpson in 2013. Photo: Elly Lucas.
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Martin Simpson: “Folk music is like an Olympic sport”

The singer and guitarist Martin Simpson on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Pete Seeger's politics and why Mumford & Sons "bemuse" him.

Let’s get Mumford & Sons out of the way, shall we? I’m chatting with Martin Simpson in advance of the 15th annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which will be held for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in London – the event’s largest-ever venue – on 19 February. Simpson, who turned 60 last year, is one of the stars of British music. He has been nominated almost 30 times since the awards were launched in 2000, more than any other performer, and for nine consecutive years he was a nominee for Musician of the Year (a prize he has won twice already and is now up for again).

Simpson has earned his stripes. Born and raised in Scunthorpe, he got his first guitar when he was 12 and had turned professional by the age of 17. His repertoire spans traditional ballads (such as “Sir Patrick Spens”), political broadsides and original compositions (including “Never Any Good”, a moving portrait of his wayward father), all accompanied by his fluid guitar finger-picking. He is now a lynchpin of what is being called the biggest folk revival since the 1960s: with the Folk Awards not only taking over the Royal Albert Hall but selling out, too, and with the Coen brothers’ folk scene homage Inside Llewyn Davis a critical hit, the genre is, Simpson says, “doing better than it ever has. It’s not just about music charting – there’s a lot of attention being paid. People are taking it very seriously and there’s a lot more reference to it in the media, without it getting silly.”

Yet it is an irony that some of the music that has brought the genre back into the limelight doesn’t make the cut for Simpson. Discussing the thriving scene, I say, “Think of Mumford & Sons …” and he laughs, a little ruefully, interjecting: “I try not to!”

“I don’t think that writing bad, semi-hysterical love songs and having a banjo qualifies you to be included in folk music,” he tells me. “It’s not ‘folk music’ whatsoever. In a sense, one of the strangest phenomenons in the success of folk music in the wider sense is the incredible success and acceptance of the Mumfords. Seeing Marcus Mumford playing with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … You know? It just bemuses me. But I think that they are the commercial spike of it. Peter, Paul and Mary were the commercial spike in the Sixties. That’s what happens when a genre does this thing, rises to the surface. People jump on it and try to exploit it. That’s not necessarily the best thing that can happen to any kind of music.”

If there was a polar opposite to that “commercial spike”, it was Pete Seeger, who died on 27 January at the age of 94. It was a great loss. Simpson says that he was “massively affected” by Seeger’s work. It isn’t just his musicianship that he admires: “Pete Seeger fought against all the things that needed to be fought against. He fought for conservation, for clean water, long before those things were fashionable. He fought against big business. He retired from [his group] the Weavers after they did a cigarette ad. He fought against racism, against greed. And music should be political … That’s not at all in vogue on the folk scene right now and I think that’s very disappointing. Folk music isn’t cosy and friendly – it’s very powerful. And that power is there on the scene” – here he mentions artists such as Dick Gaughan, Billy Bragg, Grace Petrie and his father-in-law, Roy Bailey – “but it isn’t sufficiently recognised and celebrated.”

Mumford & Sons, with their polished, stadium-filling, apolitical music, seems to have become a trope for what folk shouldn’t be. Mark Radcliffe took over the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show from Mike Harding, its presenter of 15 years, just before last year’s awards. It was a controversial move. Radcliffe says that he was aware when he started that: “People were worried, because I was very much associated with pop music, it would become all Mumford & Sons – but we are all very genuinely committed to the music of these islands.”

That an artist such as the US singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega – whose latest album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, is her first studio recording in seven years – will be performing at the Folk Awards shows that the scene is a broad church.

Simpson is wary of having a stern definition of folk. He spent 15 years in the US and it has affected his music. “I’ve been asked many times, why do I try to play American music? How do I think I can get away with American music? So I say to people that when I was growing up, American music was all there was. That’s what I heard, after I heard Gilbert and Sullivan – I listened to blues, to rock’n’roll, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis – how could I not be influenced by that? Yes, I was also listening to Scottish music, Irish music, English music and jazz … [Folk music] is not about purity, it’s not about being ‘English’ – I detest nationalism. It’s just being part of this living, growing scene.”

One of the things that distinguishes folk music as a genre is the quality of the vocals, Radcliffe says, and he notes that quality is very much on show in the awards’ Folk Singer of the Year category. This year, four women are up for the prize: Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Lisa Knapp and Lucy Ward. And it’s a category, Radcliffe argues, that refutes the charge that, by honouring artists such as Simpson again and again, the awards don’t reward new talent (fans and musicians have complained in the past that they are a “closed shop” run by a “folk mafia”).

Simpson has done so well this year that he’s up against himself: his latest release, Vagrant Stanzas, is nominated for Best Album – and so is The Full English, the result of an initiative that began, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, as an attempt to create the largest searchable digital archive of 20th-century folk manuscripts. The project spawned a tour and then an album that gathered many of the stars of the genre – Simpson, Seth Lakeman, Fay Hield and Nancy Kerr among them.

“I think it’s hilarious,” he says of having to compete with himself, adding that he hasn’t got “a cat in hell’s chance” of winning, given the competition. Simpson is full of admiration not only for the archive project but for a musical landscape that’s stronger, in his view, than at any time in living memory. “It’s like the snowball rolling down a hill. For years, the interest in this music has been growing. The access to the material gets ever easier and it’s a bit like Olympic sports – records get broken; you think it can’t get better but the more it gets done, the faster, the better people get.”

The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014 will be broadcast live at 8pm on 19 February

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era