NICK HART – Sings Ten English Folk Songs (Roebuck Records RRCD003)

Sings Ten English Folk SongsFollowing a logical mathematical progression from eight and nine, recorded during the first 2020 lockdown, Hart used the enforced isolation to explore different approaches to traditional song, expanding his usual stripped down arrangements to introduce harmonium, lyre, viols percussion and woodwinds to the canvas as he Sings Ten English Folk Songs.

He opens proceedings with the darkly strummed, click percussion traditional ‘May Song’, a mortality-themed spring carol from Cambridgeshire that enlists Tom Moore’s viola alongside Jonathan Darley, Dave Delarre, Sid Goldsmith, Richard Lock and Dave Malkin to add their vocals in the manner of a Byzantine chant.

Taken from the 1976 recording of Walter Pardon, ‘Jack Hall’ is a broadside ballad about the gallows confessions of a chimney sweep turned robber and murderer, the sombre subject matter complemented by the simple guitar and vocal recorded in one take, then, borrowing the melody from the 1972 version by Mary-Anne Haynes (as ‘The Young Officer’) while adding verses taken from Suffolk singer Jumbo Brightwell’s 1947 version, the tale of a serial killer who  entices a maids  to their deaths, ‘The Outlandish Knight’ is one of the most  widely circulated folk ballads,  Hart impressively playing wheezing harmonium and whistle at the same time.

Another of the album’s live takes, telling of thwarted love ‘Lemany’ comes from the as I was out walking one morning tradition, the lyrics here from The Copper Family’s version (as ‘Sweet Lemeney’) with the enigmatic reference to the maid’s parents warning her off because of his ‘white robes’, the spare sound created by Hart playing an old mandolin with half the strings removed.

The only track not recorded in his back bedroom, ‘The Bold Pedlar And Robin Hood’, largely taken from a 1966 fingerpicked  recording of the English Gypsy singer Denny Smith, stems from a live performances at Tom Moore’s Norfolk studio, the song one of many in the Robin Hood canon, here the folklore hero and Little John encountering a stranger in the wood, fighting but not defeating him, he eventually revealing himself to be Bill Scarlett, Robin’s cousin and the three of them heading down to the tavern to swill some ale.

The second of three carols, recounting the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the slow wintery rhythmic stomp (a lumpy jig) of ‘Dives And Lazarus’ is accompanied by a lyre made from an old banjo and some table legs and played in the Ethiopian krar tradition of strumming the six muted by the fingers and thumb of the left hand, and further coloured with whistles, percussion, viol and a bowed banjo with sympathetic strings.

Recording the vocals and then adding clarinet and two viols underneath them, opening on drone ‘Lucy Wan’ affords the obligatory murder ballad (brother gets sister pregnant, kills her and passes the blood off as that of an animal before sailing off never to return), collected by Ella Bull in 1904 from a singer called Charlotte Dann in Cottenham, a ‘Fen Edge’ village near Cambridge. It’s followed by ‘Henry Martin’, a traditional Scottish song about a seafarer turned pirate  which, learned from the singing of Sam Larner, he’s been performing for over a  decade, here a largely live take accompanied by tenor viol  drone  and with Moore’s viola mixed in later.

Another completely live take using picked archtop guitar, one mic near the body, and another recording the amp in a different room, and the third carol,  the penultimate troubadour folk number, ‘Under The Leaves of Life’ (sometimes known as ‘The Seven Virgins’) collected in 1966 by Vaughan Williams from the singing of May Bradley, recounts an encounter with the Virgin Mary on the way to Calgary. Finally, then, taken from a recording of the Romani singer Tom Willett, is ‘Our Captain  Calls’ (as in cried all hands), Hart’s treatment inspired by the 1963 variations on the melody (adopted by Vaughan Williams for ‘To Be A Pilgrim’) by octogenarian Middlesex singer Tom Willet, the song’s pacifist undertones referenced with the  closing nod to Holst’s ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’.

Traditional folk singing doesn’t come much better than this, so roll on Eleven.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Dives And Lazarus’ – official video:

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