I was in my early twenties, staying with my wife and two daughters in a friend’s cottage in the Lancashire Pennines for a week of the summer holidays. We had no money to go anywhere much further away and the cottage was a lovely, small place on the edge of the moors. I was at Uni as a mature student, doing a degree in Education and was supplementing my grant by gigging in folk clubs singing a few songs and telling a lot of stories along the way. My instruments at the time were 5 string banjo and concertina. The banjo was an old Abbot of London machine, still with the original pigskin head on it. Pigskin and damp, Pennine cottages don’t mix and, when I went to get my “axe” out for the gig in Scunthorpe that night, I discovered that it had ripped clean across the head.
It was a Sunday; there was no way I could get my hands on another banjo, so, armed with only a squeezebox and some daft stories, I set off.
The resident at the club that night was a fifteen-year old schoolboy called Martin Simpson. He had a banjo and he lent it to me, an act of kindness I have never forgotten. I have also never forgotten his playing, which was quite simply amazing. Accurate, soulful, old-timey licks and a singing voice that seemed far too big and mature to be coming from this slim lad, who didn’t even seem to be shaving yet.
Since then I have followed his journey with more than a passing interest. Even during the days when I seemed to spend my time away from folk, gigging and making TV programmes I still checked out what he was doing and bought his albums as they came along. Later, during my time at the BBC as the presenter of the Folk Show, I worked with Martin on dozens of occasions and I watched him getting better and better, not faster and flashier, better and deeper and more accomplished with each album.
He is now one of the world’s great musicians and singers and has won awards for his music; he has made a great number of fine records and given thousands of memorable performances. His contribution to the folk scene has been immense and he is respected and loved by his fellow musicians and, of course, his many thousands of fans.
Most of all, I respect him for digging me out of the crap on that sunny evening in Scunthorpe all those years ago!