Nick Hart: a burning passion for the English folk tradition

Nick Hart
Nick Hart: ‘I’ve been an autodidact since the age of 13. I pick up instruments and work them out’. Photo: Sarah Klein

Have you ever encountered someone whose passion blazes so hot that it almost burns your skin as you talk to them? It happened to me when I met Lech Wałesa, the leader of Poland’s Solidarity trade union, and when, due to an itinerary mix-up, I ended up having dinner one-to-one with Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer.

It happened again a couple of weeks ago when I spoke to Nick Hart – just that Nick’s passion smoulders rather than blazes.

Nick, who now lives in Bristol, was born and brought up in East Anglia, the son of a morris dancer who took up the melodeon as his dancing career drew to an end.

In parallel, the young Nick started experimenting with woodwinds and bagpipes before realising that he wanted to play a more English repertoire. And so he was drawn to experiment with his dad’s melodeon, and he still plays quite a lot for dancing today.

A couple of clarinet lessons at age seven, a few formal guitar lessons years later and then occasional piano lessons in his late teenage years were the sum of Nick’s formal training until he decided to study music at A-level at Hills Road college in Cambridge.

He freely admits that he struggled; the lack of “years and years of private instrumental tuition”, unhelpful teachers and a syllabus that was highly theoretical all came together to expose Nick’s weak musical foundations.

Nevertheless, today, Nick is proud of the fact that of the 120 people in his subject cohort, he is one of only two who are making a living from music!

He surmounted the difficulties of music theory and went on to read ethnomusicology at London University’s School of African and Oriental Studies.

While studying the music of the Middle East, north Africa or north India, on such courses as the one entitled Music, Shamanism and Healing, Nick made a key discovery.

This was the understanding that only a very small amount of the music that is made by humanity has actually been notated – and even less of it has been notated by the western method.

I think that for Nick this became a licence to roam, so that his interest in the theory of music could develop at its own pace in directions that he himself valued.

It was at university that Nick’s interest in English traditional folk music began to evolve. Perhaps the key to appreciating Nick the man and Nick the musician is to recognise the route that he took to this engagement with English music.

Among the exotic musics that he was encouraged to study from a formal academic point of view at university, Nick found that English traditional folk music had not, as was commonly thought, once died out and been reengineered from DNA embedded in transcriptions and manuscripts in the manner of a dinosaur in Jurassic Park. It was actually very much alive and well.

He found, to his surprise, that there were many recordings of original renditions of English traditional folk music made in the mid-20th century when tape recorder technology became more easily available – and true folk performers were still alive. This discovery of a traditional folk music that was identifiably English yet set among the other musical traditions that he was studying, seems to have been an “aha moment” for Nick. That English traditional folk music was accessible through the performance of people who had inherited the tradition made the genre immediate and authentic to him.

From here it seems that Nick’s professional life began to develop through a process of deep reflection on music generally and on English traditional folk music specifically. As a consequence of that thinking, Nick has very clear values when it comes to his music.

For make no mistake, the Englishness of Nick’s music is very important to him. His reflections on music have resulted in Nick working by a set of what he calls “rules”.

While quite happy to treat his own rules as guidelines to be broken, he does liken them to a set of ethical values rather than to a fixed code of morality.

As an example, one rule states: “If you’re going to provide a harmonic accompaniment, be it chords or wherever, you can only use the notes of the mode that you’re singing.”

As Nick explains this to me, he enthusiastically grabs a guitar and plays part of Dives And Lazarus, a song that features on his new album, Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs, and which he tells me is his favourite song from that collection.

I say that he grabs “a” guitar rather than “his” guitar because Nick’s studio is full of instruments – guitars, banjos, banjoleles, mandolins, viols, woodwinds and much more.

‘Probably a third of the time I spend on stage at my gigs is chatting between songs, and I will often be very, very silly’

He confesses: “I’ve been an autodidact since the age of 13. I just pick up instruments and sort of work them out.” I marvel at the talent and patience.

Keen to tell me more of how he applies his rules, Nick explains that he is an inveterate “consumer of traditional music from around the world”. Currently he is listening to a lot of qawwali music (Sufi Islamic devotional singing) from Pakistan and although such listening provides Nick with entertainment and pleasure he never actually stops thinking about how other, non-English, traditional musics relate to the English music that he plays.

I ask a naive question about the importance of authenticity in music and cite Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Nick gently explains that since the traditional way of singing English folk songs is unaccompanied then as soon as you put any accompaniment to a traditional song you change it and it becomes less authentic.

And then the imposition of harmonic structures on songs is, in Nick’s view, a further step away from authenticity. He does not have to spell out to me that he sees Graceland as many, many steps away from appropriate adaptation of folk music.

He worries a lot that he himself is not doing things properly in terms of his own approach to accompaniment. He is nevertheless happy that on the new album there are a couple of songs with instrumental accompaniment but no underlying chordal harmony – although he also freely admits that the album also contains instances where his “rules” have been broken.

Perhaps the rules are a Platonic ideal to which Nick strives? I for one have no doubt that, in time, he will achieve those heights of perfection.

All this talk of structure and rules raises the question of whether Nick is a theoretician or a performer, a musician or an artist? Nick sees himself as a performing musician. He has done his share of jobbing musician work: weddings and various events, but he does not consider himself adaptive enough to jump rapidly from one project to another in the way that his good friend Martin Robertson, professor of saxophone at the Royal College of Music, does.

But while Nick thinks his music through, performance is the most important thing for him. He says that each performance is an exploration of extemporisation and the result “may not be wildly different from one gig to another, but it’s fundamentally important that I bring my music to life anew each time it is performed”.

And yet, beyond this continuing reflection on his musical practice, Nick tells me that at “a lot of my gigs, probably a third of the time I spend on stage is chatting between songs, and I often will be very, very silly”.

There’s still time to experience Nick’s on-stage silliness and astonishing take on English traditional folk music during his current tour, which takes in Cambridge, Brighton and the Fire in the Mountain festival.

Among songs from Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs, I would expect that you will hear what in my view is the definitive performance of The River Don’t Run – a contemporary song about the transformation of the area of London that became St Pancras station in the mid-19th century and the consequent redirection of the River Fleet.

Nick has taken words by Richard Guard and Anna Crockatt and put them to music, a combination that results in both the beautiful telling of an extraordinary love story and the creation of a historical record in one fell swoop.

He is also likely to finish his set off with The Yellow Handkerchief – a song that was first noted in Limerick in the 1850s but was still well known in the 1960s, not only in Nick’s native East Anglia but also among Travellers throughout southern England.

Nick’s performance of it stays true to the song’s traditional origins (and to Nick’s own “rules”!) and it has become something of a signature song of his.

Nick has made a long anthropological journey to find English traditional folk music and to set its performance into a context that seems as enchanting as it is unique.

He is a very intense young man and, as we end our conversation, I ask him if he is serious about life. “I’m very serious about life. I think there are a lot of things that ought to be taken very seriously. I take these songs very seriously,” he tells me, speaking of his latest album.

But he goes on to assure me, just in case I have formed the impression that he is all cerebral, that “I think generally I’m a very jovial person in the pub, you know?”

I know – and I really look forward to buying Nick a pint next time I’m in Bristol. There remains an awful lot more to talk about.

For more details see nickhartmusic.com. This article appeared in Folk London 319, June-July 2022