Nick Hart: Sings Eight English Folk Songs
Self Released – 2017
If you don’t know much about Nick Hart let me save you the trouble of looking on the ‘net because there is not much on there beyond a couple of YouTube clips (including a little wine tasting) and a sort of Facebook presence. However, do not let this mar your interest in the man and his album because it does not matter what you know, here is an excellent set of songs sung in the traditional English style.
Hang on; “traditional English style”? What’s that? Well, without getting bogged down in discourses on Englishness and so forth, Nick Hart has taken songs from recognised English singers some recorded in the heyday of field recordings and brings them to our ears for our enjoyment.
Many of these will be familiar and, beyond the enjoyment of hearing them here, some will provide a starting point to do a bit of research into the origins of these particular versions. Sometimes the song is immediately recognisable but the name may be unfamiliar, especially to the Bellowhead generation. The first track, Yellow Handkerchief is also known as Flash Company and is after Phoebe Smith, a Suffolk Gypsy singer. Hart’s guitar introduces the song with the octave fiddle of Tom Moore lying underneath, a backdrop on which Hart’s clear guitar stands out in an audio version of 3D. (I have to say that I have played this album on various devices and each device creates a different aural picture.)
The Press Gang is two lessons in social history, firstly about early recruitment methods of the navy, and secondly in the passage of songs from generation to generation. We are told that Hart learned this from the singing of Ewan MacColl, and before him, it was collected by Ernest Moeran from Norfolk singer James Sutton.
Butter & Cheese, also known as The Greasy Cook, is an amusing story of a chap whose girlfriend is a cook and after being duly fed whilst the master is away has to hide up the chimney on the master’s sudden return, with consequences for the Butter & Cheese in his pockets. This has one of those tunes that are so familiar that it pops up all over the place – I spent two days working out that I was segueing in my head from this into a tune by John Kirkpatrick and back again.
I listened to Sweet William intently as I thought I was missing the ending, the resolution was missing. This is a version of man has wicked way with maid, he goes off, she complains to king who finds man, who happens to be married, and as such would have him executed. However here the story stops with the man handing over a sum of money so that the woman can buy the services of a wet nurse. Hart was dissatisfied with this version of events by Emily Sparkes but decided to leave it as it was – suggesting that it was best left alone as “it reflects the ambiguity of the melody” but admitting that in fact “I may well just be making excuses”.
The next track, Twenty-One Years on Dartmoor, a long tale of a man going to prison for something he has not done, poses questions of origin. Some of the words – ‘railroad’, ‘babe’ ‘stack’ – are clearly American though the places are English, the song apparently having its origins in Nashville and making the journey to the UK possibly in the 1930s. Hart though is not very bothered about this as he confesses to be “in it for verses 5-6”, whereby the protagonist is counting the minutes, nights, hours, lights, footsteps and so on.
It is difficult to have a stand-out track on an album like this where all songs are memorable, but if pushed I would, oddly, go for The River Don’t Run. I say oddly because this is not an old song but if you did not know that, you would think it arose out the period in which it is set: the destruction of the slums in London to make way for the building of St Pancras railway station and the disappearance of the river Fleet, sentenced to a life underground. The song was written by Richard Guard and Anna Crockatt who have The Relatively Good Music Show on Resonance FM a London-based arts radio station.
Overall impression? Lovely but an even higher accolade is that the other listener in the house has given her seal of approval – praise indeed. Throughout the whole album, there is a sense of Hart enjoying himself, little glints of a wry smile here and there, a little joke held to himself. And, importantly, here is another generation learning from the previous generations, moulding it in some cases but still presenting the tradition. Absolutely excellent.
Order via Bandcamp: https://nickhartmusic.bandcamp.com/releases