Last updated on April 15, 2021
This article is about obsession. In some ways, it could serve as a warning: beware, young folk adventurers, for it may all end like this. Nick Hart may have made one of the finest folk albums in recent years, but it clearly came at a cost. This is a man who is kept awake at night by questions concerning the appropriate use of 5/4 metres; a man whose existential crises tend to whirl around the right and wrong way to accompany traditional English song. He’s a proper trad folk fanatic –so, in chatting with him, I felt I’d met a true kindred spirit. I, for one, could relate very specifically to each of his myriad musical neuroses.
Nick Hart’s debut solo album arrived in my inbox almost sheepishly, but there was nothing very sheepish about him when he turned up in the pub opposite my house on a mid-November night last year. He’s a burly chap with a passion for his subject that borders on the tactile. If he’s talking about the melodeon, his hands are busy squeezing the air-melodeon as he speaks. When the fiddle is his topic, he’s very busy pumping an invisible bow arm. A wonderful multi-instrumentalist by trade, you get the impression that each movement is well-honed and accurate. He may be obsessed, but he’s also extremely gifted.
Over the course of a couple of hours, we polished away a few drinks and mithered over everything from Martin Carthy‘s Folk Police (note: they don’t really exist, but it was that kind of conversation) to the origins of his chosen songs, right through to the inherent difficulties of being a modern man having to sing the words ‘fol-de-rol’ without embarrassment.
And before we start, another warning: you may need to read this with a dictionary open. Nick is given to using words like ‘heterophonics’ – not a word that I can imagine his hero, Sam Larner (or anyone else on this planet) ever using in pub conversation. It’s because of quirks such as this that I get the sense that there are very few people like Nick Hart – a very good thing, and one of the reasons I’ve come to believe that the English folk tradition is in very safe hands.
A conversation with Nick Hart, folk singer
How did you pick up the traditional folk music bug, Nick?
You go first. How did you?
Erm, in a number of ways, one of which was that I play in a band called The Grizzly Folk occasionally, and we were asked to play a gig at a local heritage site (Whitchurch Silk Mill). They asked us to learn the local songs. I didn’t know such a thing as ‘local songs’ existed in the way that it does, and when I went off and looked into that some more… well that was it. It blew my mind!
It’s interesting, isn’t it? A lot of people come at it like that. I came at it from a very different angle. My dad was a Morris dancer and he plays the melodeon. I was around that from a young age. I always had this idea, and I don’t know where I got the idea from, that English traditional music had been completely lost and then almost made up again. The idea that it was all posh blokes in 1910 collecting songs, and that was the end of it… I wasn’t really aware of that body of work recorded in the 1950s and 60s.
Sam Larner and all those old singers on The Voice of the People?
Yeah, Sam Larner and Harry Cox. My dad was in North Essex, and Thaxted is the next village away from where he lives. It has a famous men’s Morris side. I went there and met a guy called Simon Ritchie, a brilliant melodeon player. I was only about 19 or 20. Along with John and Katie Howson, who run the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, he was going around all those old pubs in Suffolk learning songs and playing tunes with that very last generation of old boys. Realising the real linearity of that was completely mind blowing, you know what I mean? The idea of it having been completely lost, and of it being partially reconstructed from historical sources… I realised all of that was bollocks. There was that sense of, y’know, “I learnt this from my mate Simon who learnt it from that old boy in that pub”.
So, do you think there are still pockets and areas where that’s still happening?
The last of those old boys are gone, really. I met one in Norfolk a few years ago, but I’m not sure if he’s still with us. But there are loads and loads of CDs. Do you know Veteran Records? All that stuff was recorded in the 70s and 80s. It’s not as distant as we think. That was a real penny-drop moment for me. It’s not fanciful and imagined. It’s quite amazing when that moment happens – when you make those connections.
It all just suddenly clicks, doesn’t it? It’s also fascinating that, as soon as you begin to make those connections and learn a little more, the traditional folk community springs up around you. I find it extremely welcoming. As soon as you ‘come out’, as it were, people start sharing things with you. You find this little network of like-minded people.
Yeah, well Simon Ritchie was a some-time mentor for me. I played with him a lot when I was 21 or 22. His wife, Bobbie, was amazing. Sadly she died four or five years ago. She spent her whole life at all the festivals. Thaxted Church is a big place, but the crowd at her funeral was about 10-deep outside. People were coming from all over the country. There was a real sense of her being at the centre of a generation when this was a big thing. For those people, traditional folk music was huge! I mean, this generation is good, but maybe it’s not quite as hot and exciting [laughs].
So, what’s your story? Who the hell are you, Nick?
[Mulling it over] Who am I? That’s the question… I dunno! Where to start?
I ask because you popped up in my inbox about six weeks ago. I think your album is pretty special, but nobody seemed to know who you were. I asked a few people about it. Like, “Have you heard this?” And it seems we all found out about it in the same way. It seems as though you recorded it some time ago and then forgot to tell anyone about it! I spoke to Jack Rutter about you, and he was full of praise. Some people do seem to know that you exist…
[Laughs] People do know me, yeah… Like I say, my dad was a folkie, although when I was a teenager he was less involved in it than perhaps he had been before. My half-brother spent a lot of his teenage years at folk festivals, whereas I didn’t. I know a lot of the folk crowd. Archie Churchill-Moss, from Moore Moss Rutter, is a family friend. As I got more into it when I was 16, 17, 18, I started meeting those guys a bit more. I was never pushed into it as a teenager, but that meant I didn’t have anyone to play that music with. I was never put in those situations. It was only really when I was 19 or 20 that I started playing traditional folk music with other people.
How old are you now?
I’m 28. I did an ethnomusicology degree at SOAS, studying traditional music from all around the world… which was a weird thing to do. It was full of people who thought my interest in English traditional music meant I was a secret skinhead!
I’d like to think my interest in traditional English folk music comes from a place of seeking a sense of cultural equality. There was this sense on the course that all the other music in the world was ‘ethnic’… it was a very well-meaning but no less pejorative view of people that Britain once colonised. Towards the end of the second year, I had that epiphany of really getting into English traditional song. I got obsessed. That summer I went to Whitby and Sidmouth, and I went on the English Acoustic Collective Summer School at Ruskin Mill. I was really trying to make contact with the rest of the folk world.
Things were starting to happen in London at that point. Events like Woodburner, which was run at The George in Clapton. Jamboree was just beginning. So in the final year of university, I really started meeting people. Not people who necessarily played English traditional music, but were appreciative of it. Woodburner is now very successful – it’s run by a guy called Theo Bard – and it started off completely acoustic – everyone was [whispering] really silent. They were beautiful gigs to play. It was a time when people were starting to like the idea of folk music again – they thought it was exciting – they just didn’t really know what it was! Mumford & Sons were becoming popular, so clearly people didn’t have access to the old stuff. I started doing more singing then, and I started working a lot with Sam Lee.
What were you doing with Sam?
I never played with him, per-se. I worked on some stuff with him, running singing sessions at his events. Stuff like that. Then he started a ceilidh band called The Ceilidh Liberation Front, which I was in. It was never very good, musically. There was me and a Scottish fiddle player called Lewis Murray – an astounding player – but we never really had any tunes in common. We were kind of thrown together and never quite managed to make it work. I think Sam had amazing ideas around it, that it wasn’t going to be just another ceilidh function band. In the end, we got all these really high-profile gigs, but the music was fucking terrible! We wore funny costumes, we had three callers… [laughs].
What are you doing now?
In the last few years I’ve been working in theatre. I earn all my money from playing music, but it’s that weird thing… I met Eliza Carthy a few years ago and she asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I play folk music for a living.” She said, “how have I not heard of you?!” All the work I do is slightly under the radar. I’ve been doing more and more work for theatre, sometimes as an actor/musician, sometimes playing ceilidhs for people’s weddings; I’ve done bits of work for tele and radio. And then there was Oss, which was me and Tom Moore and John Dipper. That was the best music I’ve ever made, but it kind of just fizzled out for various reasons.
And this new album?
I was singing unaccompanied songs for years. That was my thing. It took me a long time to be comfortable with accompanying myself in a way that didn’t feel like it was treading on the toes of the songs. You know what I mean? I wanted to be able to preserve that flexible sense of metre, and not being too heavy-handed harmonically. I didn’t want to assert myself with big chords. I tried different things over the years with no success. Eventually, I just decided to do what Chris Wood and Martin Carthy have always done: pick an open-tuning and play heterophonically.
I beg your pardon? What the hell does that mean?
[Laughs bashfully] Well, to put my ethnomusicologists hat on for a moment… In terms of musical textures, homophony is where everyone is singing the same thing in unison. Everyone is singing the same one line. Polyphony is obviously where multiple things are happening at once. Heterophony is where two things are playing almost the same thing. Obviously Martin Carthy’s playing is a lot more complicated than that, but at the core of what he’s doing is heterophony. So, all my simple guitar accompaniments are built up around that: I’m just playing a version of the melody. And in truth, that’s as much of a conceptual thing as it is a desired end-result. It took a while to be comfortable with doing that. I didn’t play the guitar for about 10 years, and then a couple of years ago I took it up again and decided to do that album. I’m sorry it took so long to send it out!
You don’t have to apologise. It’s great to have heard it.
We started recording it at the end of 2015 – me and Tom Moore – and then we decided it wasn’t very good. So we recorded the whole thing again in January of 2016. I got the CDs back around a year ago [late 2016] but, y’know, things get in the way don’t they?
So you sat on the CDs for a year, and then started sending them out?
Yeah. [Laughs] I’m not very good at asking people for help, and I’m clearly very shit at PR! It’s one of those things. We had a market stall when I was growing up, and I guess that gave me that independent thing: “I’m gonna do this all myself.” But there are certain things I’m just not good at. I’m starting to come to terms with that and recognise it now. I need to pay someone to nudge me to do things. But I’m glad I got around to getting it out. The feedback has been lovely.
It’s a great album. In Jack Rutter’s words, “It’s a banger!”
Oh, thanks Jack!
In terms of the album, there’s nothing on it I don’t like, but where the hell did you get the song, ‘The River Don’t Run’? It’s a stunning song!
It’s a cracker, isn’t it?
It’s the only one on the album that’s not traditional, right?
Yeah. ‘Twenty-One Years On Dartmoor’ is a funny one – it’s had a very different life to the rest of the songs. But, yeah, ‘The River Don’t Run’ is the only new one. Two of my friends run something on Resonance FM called The Relatively Good Radio Show…
Does it live up to its name?
[Laughs] Yeah! Richard and Anna, who present the radio show, were in a band called the Dulwich Ukulele Club. They played together for two years or so, and one night they were playing darts and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just stop time right here?” Richard replied, “my uncle wrote a book on how time doesn’t exist”, and Anna said, “that’s funny, my uncle wrote a book on how time doesn’t exist”. And it turned out they were cousins and didn’t know! So they went and formed a band called The Relatives. Now they run The Relatively Good Radio Show together. The whole thing is about turning everyday London life into folk legend, so they write a song a week for it. It’s weird because Richard is probably my best mate but I call him Uncle Richard because when we met I was 24 and he was 48. It was a way of rationalising the fact that my best mate is a 50-year-old man! He’s my Uncle Richard – a wonderful and very clever man.
So that amazing song was just one of their weekly compositions?
Yeah, I guess it was. They tend to do things that are more contemporary. My second-favourite of their songs is called ‘Hit and Run Robbery at Brent Cross’, which is based on a jewellery robbery in Brent Cross Shopping Centre a couple of years ago. That’s the kind of thing they tend to write about – stuff that happened during the week. But Richard is very into the history of London. He actually wrote a book – a little toilet read called Lost London. He read about Agar Town, this slum that was demolished to build St Pancras Station. There are a few streets around there that reference it – Agar Place, or what have you – but mostly it’s gone from history. In a psycho-geographical way, there are funny parallels with Summers Town – a massive London estate that nobody seems to know about. It’s just west of Kings Cross and just south of Camden, as was Agar Town, so that area of London seems to be a funny place for that kind of ‘lost town’ thing.
Anyway, they wrote that song, but their original version was very American popular music. [In his best Bryan Adams impersonation, with fists thumping the pub table] “I was booooorn on Paradise Road, Agar Town…” I heard it, I thought it was great and I thought there is no way I can do it like that. American pop is built in a very different way.
My dissertation was on English songs in 5-beat metres. My conclusion was that the unaccompanied English song tradition ended up compressing songs that, when they were originally composed, may have had a bit of a gap in them. You know what I mean? If you imagine it, the little gaps – the silent beats that would be filled by instrumentation if you were accompanying yourself… they’re really uncomfortable! So you tend to have skip them, which leaves a lot of songs in 5/4. And that’s what I did with ‘The River Don’t Run’. I compressed it down into something where there were no gaps.
That’s really interesting. And that explains why I can’t play it.
Hahaha! Yeah, it’s not easy.
I’ve sat down so many times since I heard it and tried to play it. I can’t do it. My daughter hates the song. She’s heard it played badly too many times.
Hahaha! I’m sorry.
I wake up with it in my head. I’ll be singing it at breakfast. She’s like, “Oh my god, dad! Will you shut up!?”
Hahaha! Well, send her my apologies.
And now it turns out I’m simply adding too many spaces.
Yeah, it’s 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3. You need to think of it in fives, although it’s not consistently in fives. That’d be too easy!
Hahaha! I rejigged the melody to make it work, but I see it as a wonderful collaboration between me and my mates, although I didn’t actually interact with them on my bit of the work [laughs]. It’s a bit cheesy though, isn’t it? Don’t you think? It’s a love story superimposed on a historical event.
It’s just a great song. That’s all it is. Cheesy or not, it’s one of those songs that – as a relative newcomer to traditional songs – I couldn’t have picked it out as a modern original.
It’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, it’s very concise songwriting. Getting that story out in four verses – there’s real skill there.
I suppose that’s what gives it away as being non-traditional. It’s too concise.
Ha! Yeah, it doesn’t have 150 verses! If you take another song on that album – say, ‘The Yellow Handkerchief’ – that’s a very poppy song. It’s got a verse and a chorus and some structure. Although it’s an old traditional, it’s actually very modern in terms of what it does. It conveys a sense of meaning with a slight narrative, but mostly it just conveys a feeling. That’s quite a modern thing.
A lot of the songs that the 20th century gypsy singers were singing – we get ‘The Yellow Handkerchief’ from Phoebe Smith – you have to take in the context that they were also listening to a lot of American country and western. So you have to wonder, what came first? Were they attracted to the American stuff because they sang these songs, or were they attracted to the old songs because they liked American country and western? Did it influence the way they sang the old songs – that lilting, wobbling, melodic thing?
So, yeah – I think ‘The River Don’t Run’ feels like it sits within the tradition quite comfortably, but it definitely felt modern to me when I was inside it. Do you know what I mean? The way it’s built is quite modern. It’s a conciseness born of clever 21st century songwriting. A lot of the shorter folk songs you realise have been worn down to their bare essentials. A lot of them haven’t, obviously, because they still got 41 verses [laughs] but a lot of them have become concise. People remember the verses that are important.
I’m becoming more convinced that it’s a survival of the fittest thing with many traditional folk songs.
Everybody sings, these days, from a really small pool of songs, and that’s because a lot of the other songs have died away for good reason.
Yeah, it’s true. I’ve just come off a tour supporting Mawkin, and I had half an hour every night. I was able to do a different set every night, which was great. I ended up doing a song called ‘The Crockery Dial’. It’s one of these songs about really big animals. It’s a really daft one that I got off a guy called Chris Bartram. It’s got a proper folkie chorus which goes, “To me right fol-dal, to me right fol-dal-the-day.” It does that line twice. That’s a lot of fol-de-rols for one song! I remember being in Oss, and John vetoed any songs that had fol-de-rols in them. And once you’ve got rid of them, you’ve lopped off a large proportion of English folk songs. And then, if you want to have songs that are consistent with our view of the world today, then you’ve got to chop out another load. So it’s not just that the songs that have aged this far are the best ones, it’s also often that they’re the ones we feel comfortable playing. You have to make these decisions, don’t you? I mean, are you going to sing songs with fol-de-rol choruses or are you not?
I just can’t do it.
It’s a tough one, isn’t it?
I just feel wrong.
It does feel fucking stupid, don’t get me wrong. I just care more about it than you do [laughs].
I care more about the tradition. Haha! I’m more invested in it than you are.
Is there a way around it? Are you allowed to chop the fol-de-rols off? Do they have to stay?
Hahaha! I don’t know. I’m not the Folk Police, thank god. Although nobody admits to being the Folk Police. We still don’t know who they are. They’re out there somewhere.
You chop off the fol-de-rols and you get a knock on the door from Martin Carthy.
This annoys my girlfriend no end. She’s called Dominie Hooper. She was into folk songs long before I met her, but in my hyper-male way, I’m more obsessed with finding out the obscure stuff [laughs]. She’ll just sing songs that sound really good, whereas I’m like… there’s a pride thing in finding obscure stuff. Even if I’m singing ‘Lord Randall’, I want my version to be different to the Martin Carthy version. You know what I mean? A lot of people do just sing the Martin Carthy versions of songs, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The reality is that Martin Carthy did it all so well, and the version that Martin Carthy did is invariably the best one. But I do like to search for songs by Roud number.
‘Tuesday Morning‘, a song that Eliza Carthy did on an early album, has little instrumentals between verses and they sound suspiciously like they were once fol-de-rols. Somebody has instrumentalised them somewhere along the line.
So it is allowed?
Well, I had these massive existential crises about how you ought to accompany a traditional English song. I kind of have this theory, which I’ve never been able to put properly into practise… Oh god, this is going to sound really mad…
At university I became completely obsessed with the Mugham tradition from Azerbaijan. Alim Qasimov is the greatest exponent of it. I realised that there were lots of traditions, like English folk, that wouldn’t have a fixed metre. They have no harmonic accompaniment, because they’re unaccompanied traditions. Finding hard and fast ways of accompanying things is a difficult thing, and it’s not necessary, of course – you can do it however you like – but for me, I felt I had to find a way of accompanying myself that worked for all songs.
There are lots of songs that you could put comfortable harmonies to, but there are loads that the can’t. I’m obsessed with finding hard and fast rules. Spending some time looking at methods of accompanying songs that allows for free metre is something I want to spend more time doing. Writing music for theatre is very much about that – working with actors to see how you can underscore text in a way that allows them to be elastic with the timings of the text… it’s all about that. It’s hard, though.
Hard but fascinating. What a thing to spend your life obsessing over! I can think of far worse.
Yeah, it’s true. Those niggly little points stop me from…
Yeah, but also stopped me from gigging for six years!
I was going to say. I was wondering if you’re going to be one of those guys who releases an album a decade.
Ha! Yeah, it’s like, “OK, we’ve worked out that bit…” I remember talking to Rob Harbron about this. We were talking about John Dipper, who is – for my money – the best English fiddle player. He’s astounding, and when I started playing with him I became even more convinced of it. He’s just such an obsessive. Rob was saying that he’s a wonderful guy to play with, but he’s so obsessive that you’ll play with him one week, then you’ll see him a week later and he’ll have decided that the way he holds his bow is wrong! So he’ll spend four months learning how to hold his bow again [laughs]. My point is, it’s not always useful being that obsessive with things.
Anyway, where were we? You asked me whether it’s OK to get rid of the fol-de-rols. I don’t know what the answer to that is.
I just can’t deal with them. It’s not even that I think someone’s going to laugh at me. I just can’t stand hearing myself singing them. I think it’s going to have to be a New Year’s resolution to learn at least one fol-de-rol song.
Yeah, ease yourself in gently. I got over it. I’m OK with it now.
Yeah, you seem to be.
We should find you one. It’ll be like a gateway drug. We’ll get you there eventually.
So, we’ve talked a bit about the ‘River’ song on your album, and we’ve talked about the ‘handkerchief’ song. About an hour ago your started talking about the ‘Dartmoor’ song. Let’s go back to that.
Well, I don’t really know a huge amount about that song. It’s a weird one. It’s collected from a lot of different gypsy singers.
Is gypsy singing an area you’re interested in?
Not overtly, but I think the recordings we have of gypsy singers from the mid-20th century tend to be of better quality. A lot of the time, they were just younger singers when they were being recorded, so they retained the songs better than many did. I have quite a few friends in the English gypsy community around the country and their singing is amazing. I wonder if it has to do with lower literacy rates. I’m quite dyspraxic. I don’t hate writing things down, but I have terrible eye-hand coordination. I can’t catch a ball. The piano never appealed to me because that initial visual thing was never helpful. I use muscle-memory to compensate, and I think, until very recently, there were very low literacy rates in the gypsy community. I think it’s the same reason that blind people were thought to make good piano tuners – their ability to remember things was really honed. Their ability to remember long stories and long songs was second-to-none.
There are also differences in the way that gypsy singers sing. I don’t think I try to imitate that style, but there are three songs on my album that were collected from English gypsy singers. ‘The Yellow Handkerchief’ was collected from Phoebe Smith, ‘Twenty-One Years On Dartmoor’ was collected from a Mrs Saunders in Lingfield, Sussex, and ‘Down in the Meadow‘ was from a guy called Jasper Smith. I don’t think I sing it overtly in that style, but you learn it in a certain way. Those very floaty melodies are very appealing. They’re beautiful. I’m attracted to them because of that, not because they’re from that section of the population.
And the ‘Dartmoor’ song?
Oh yeah, sorry! I’ve kind of gone off that song now. I don’t sing it live, and it’s my least favourite track on the album. I find it a bit long and slow. The original recording of that is fucking incredible! One of those ones that just grabs you. I think it must’ve been American in origin, even though the place names are all English. It sounds so much like an American country song. And the language is very American – it uses the word ‘babe’ a lot, which doesn’t feel to me like any kind of regional lexicon in this country. I’m sure someone has done a lot of work on it, and in a way I’m a bit loathe to pick it apart too much. I quite like how weird it is, and how strange that it got to where it is.
How about the ‘Butter and Cheese’ song?
That’s from Sam Larner.
That’s an amazing song. Just the level of detail! To go back to what we were saying earlier about the way in which songs get chiselled down over the years, listening to that song you have to wonder how the details have been formed. You have to wonder what that song might’ve lost over the years to bring it to its current state of being.
To be honest with you, that song’s not going to be all that old. It’s going to be early 19th century at its earliest. And there a lot of songs about a guy getting caught shagging! It’s a song of devices – how does he get here, and what happens next, and how did that happen? It’s probably the song on the album that’s closest to the original broadside ballad that it came from. It may have lost some things along the way, but it feels to me like it’s intact.
Yes. I suppose it has a similarity to ‘The Bedmaking‘ in that it feels fairly complete. But even if you’re saying to me that it’s early 19th century, that still gives it plenty of time to have been sung a lot, with things being added and subtracted along the way.
It has definitely been collected in a few places, but it’s funny isn’t it… here I am all blasé, saying, “Oh, it’s not that old. It’s only 170!” But this is the stuff we deal with [laughs]. But, you know, I’ve never heard any other versions of ‘Butter and Cheese’ other than Sam Larner’s. Someone came up to me the other day and told me about a completely different version.
You do meet a lot of people when you play at these folk clubs that want to come and tell you about versions of songs that they know about. That’s great. But you also get a queue of slightly pedantic people who want to correct your mis-wording of verse two, line three.
Yeah… the reality is that I’m not too far away from those guys. I hate to think what I’ll be like when I’m older. Fuck me!
You’ll just have to stay at home.
Yeah, these are the things that wind my girlfriend up the most. It’s why I hang out with Uncle Richard so much.
To find out more about Nick Hart, head to nickhartmusic.bandcamp.com.