NICK HART – Sings Nine English Folk Songs (Roebuck RRCD002)

Nine English Fold SongsWhat it says on the lid, this goes one better than Hart’s previous album, Sings Eight English Folk Songs, for a further burrowing among the tradition archive to unearth some lesser known songs as well as more familiar numbers.

The son of a melodeon player, Hart, who hails from East Anglia (and from where much of the material derives) looks to be in his late 20s/early 30s, but sounds a good 50 years older, his singing style very much in what might be termed an old school finger in the ear manner sparsely accompanied by his Carthy-esque guitar playing and Tom Moore’s viola.

Recorded totally live, it opens with ‘The Rakish Young Fellow’, this version learned from the repertoire of Walter Pardon and previously recorded by Hart on his Oss trio EP back in 2014, in which the narrator reflects on his wild and restless past as he faces the end of his days, calling upon any mourners to get madly drunk and dance on his grave. ‘Bold Keeper’ is an amalgam of two versions performed by Gloucestershire’s Brazil family, the song dating back to at least the 17th century (where it was published as the 16-verse ‘The Master-piece Of Love Songs’) and mutating into ‘The Bold Dragoon’, neatly summarised as “A dialogue betwixt a bold Keeper and a Lady gay/He woo’d his Lord’s Daughter, and carried the Day/But soon after Marriage was forced for to fight/With his Lord and six gentlemen, for his own Right”.

Moving on, ‘Georgie’ hails from Hart’s home county of Cambridgeshire, though it also exists as a variant collected by Robert Burns as ‘Geordie’, the more familiar title, but in all cases concerns a woman pleading for the life of her husband who’s due to be hung (for poaching deer in this version), Hart setting the words (from which he’s excised two verses) to a tune collected by Fowlmere. In some versions he’s spared, in others he’s not; Hart gives him the thumbs down.

A tale of sexual peccadillos, in which the titular character returns home to catche a young lad having it away with his missus, the relatively jaunty ‘The Molecatcher’ is a much recorded number, Hart learning his version from Peter Bellamy and featuring fine viola work from Moore.

Another case where Hart combines words and tune from different sources (the former collected, of all places, in Clacton) for the sparsely fingerpicked accompanied ‘The Lakes Of Cold Finn’, an Irish ballad about a young man going swimming in a lake and drowning.

Another from the Pardon repertoire, ‘A Ship To Old England Came’, the tale of a cabin boy surviving a sea-going battle during the Napoleonic wars, also figures among Martin Carthy’s catalogue. For those who note such things, the first verse is in a different key to the rest of the song.

Moving into the final stretch, duetting with Dominic Hooper, ‘John Riley’ is more commonly known as ‘Lord Randall’, the Anglo-Scottish murder ballad in which the young Lord returns home to his mother complaining of feeling sick and it transpires he’s been fed poisoned eels by his sweetheart to ensure he never cheats on her.

Previously recorded by, among others, June Tabor, Hart learnt ‘Riding Down To Portsmouth’ from the singing by Brighton’s Mary Ann Haynes of Brighton collected in the 70s. With a viola and guitar intro, it’s a well-worn tale about a gullible lad who finds his night of dalliance with some pretty lass he meets along the road leaves him considerably out of pocket and with a dose to remember her by.

Perhaps the best-known song, he closes with a near seven-minute take on ‘Two Sisters’, the lyrics largely hewing to Carthy’s version with its ‘bonny bows of London’ refrain from a Scottish variant, the much recorded murder ballad about a young woman, the king and queen’s daughter, drowned by her envious older sister, her bones and hair being crafted into a fiddle that unfolds her fate to her parents.

The lack of much variation of tonal colour in the singing and accompaniment could make this a tad wearying to take in at one uninterrupted sitting, but Hart’s authenticity and passion for the material is never in question.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Georgie’ – live with Dominie Hooper: