Paul Sartin on Bellowhead, Faustus, The Transports and a life in folk music

This week’s folk conversation is sprawling to say the least, but that’s to be expected when your chatting with a man who has been a fiddle and oboe player in Bellowhead, a musicologist, one of the blokes in Faustus, one of two Pauls in Belshazzar’s Feast and the musical director of the triumphant recent production of The Transports. Suffice to say, it’s a wonder Paul Sartin ever has time to sleep, let alone time to sit down and discuss it all. Best that we get down to it immediately then, before he ups and starts a new project.

When did you first realise that folk music was your calling, Paul? 

I remember falling in love with it in my school years – hearing something on the radio, which I think might’ve been American, and just loving the sound of it. Bearing in mind that I was brought up with mainly classical and nonconformist chapel music – hymns and orchestras – the sound of folk music was quite exotic. At school we used to do aural training every morning using the Kodály Method. Kodály was a Hungarian musicologist, composer and folksong collector, and he developed the system of solfège, or sol-fa (do re mi) – to train the ear in a way that’s not reliant on written music or Western notation. We used to do 20 minutes of very rigorous training every morning at music school, to the point that we could hear a melody twice and then sing it back and simultaneously play it back in canon two bars behind. As part of that training we used a lot of modal melodies, so we used a lot of folk song melodies from Britain and Europe.

How old were you at this point? 

Early teens. Shortly afterwards I started playing in orchestras, and in one of the orchestras we did Vaughan Williams’ ‘Norfolk Rhapsody Number 2’, which uses three traditional melodies, and I fell in love with it again. So I suppose I fell in love with folk music for romantic reasons [laughs]. I mean I literally fell in love with it!

Soon after that one of my classmates, who I’m still in touch with and very grateful to, said, “If you like folk stuff you should listen to Jethro Tull!” Now, Tull are not folk music per se, but it was their folky period, and because of them I started listening to Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, June Tabor, and then branching out into all the different component parts.

Did you get along to any folk clubs? 

Yes, I started going to the one at Cecil Sharp House when I was about 16.

Sharps? 

Yep, Sharps. I used to cycle there from Willesden to Camden and then wobble back because they used to serve me underage. And that’s where I sang my first folk song in public.

Which was? 

Which was ‘This is the Truth’, a carol from Herefordshire collected by Vaughan Williams, so I knew it from one of his arrangements. I was maybe 17, and I was the youngest person there by far. The next person up in age was probably the age I am now – which I’m not going to tell you.

I know how old you are. 

Yes, well for the purposes of this interview you don’t know [laughs]. So I sang, but I was petrified. The locals encouraged me to sing, so after a few weeks I plucked up the courage and decided to sing this ‘Truth’ thing. I remember there was this very drunken Glaswegian fellow who used to sit on the corner of the bar on a stool. Apparently he had a repertoire of some 400 songs, but he used to sit there and scowl and drink, and occasionally he’d bark out a song. So I sang ‘This is the Truth’, and all the regulars were cheering me on – I was just this nervous, trembling 17-year-old – and this guy lurched off his stool and stumbled up to me, and with his face right up in mine he said, “Never sing again! You are a child of the devil!” And that was my introduction to the warm and loving bosom of English folk music.

Ha! What a start! 

Yes, well I think that might have been a red rag to a bull. I started getting into it and I liked the scene (apart from that guy), and I suppose I was challenged by that. But it has always been a mixture of all of those things for me. It’s the sheer beauty of the music, but it’s also the scene and the sessions – there has also been that social element, too.

Isn’t there some folk branch in your family tree, too?  

Yes. When I was about 18 I went to the first ever National Cider Festival, in Camden Town Hall, and the house band was The Yetties, who were massive at the time. The drummer and percussionist was Bonny Sartin, so I went up and introduced myself and told him my surname was also Sartin, and he explained that certain folk songs had been collected from our family. I did nothing about that for years and years, but I eventually got in touch with him and at that point I got drawn into the history of it – both the family history and the social history, as well as the sociopolitical element of it all – and I ended up doing a masters degree in some music from our family.

There’s a particular person on your family tree that Cecil Sharp himself collected from, isn’t there? 

Well, Marina Russell, nee Sartin, was my great, great, great grandfather’s niece. She was quite a character, and she sang 100 songs and song fragments to the Hammond brothers (not Cecil Sharp). By all accounts she’d had a really hard life. She’d lost two children and her husband died prematurely, and she’d had a really tough upbringing in the rural working class. You now look at Dorset and Hampshire, where we are now, and you think this is the affluent South, but 100 years ago these areas were the poorest in the country. There was no industry, no canals, just agricultural labour and piecework, which is what she did. So she had this terrible existence, but this great strength of character that comes through in her songs – things like ‘The Bedmaking‘, which is quite saucy. There’s an account of her dancing around her kitchen in her 70s, singing songs. A chap called Nick Dow has actually written a musical about her. I recently found a picture of her, too.

Is there a family resemblance? Did she have a beard, too? 

Haha! Well, I sometimes wear my hair in a bun…

When I was looking into ‘The Bedmaking’, I came across a great Martin Carthy quote about her. Carthy seems to know everything about anything to do with folk music, of course, and he says something like, “as with most of her songs, Marina doesn’t seem to have remembered many of the lyrics…”

Yeah, absolutely! I don’t know if any monetary reward changed hands during those song collecting sessions, but you get the feeling with some of the singers that they were just dredging up whatever they could for the sake of a shilling or whatever it was. She was knocking on a bit, and there’s this great quote about her not remembering things because, “she’d become severely diminished in her faculties and teeth.”

But those collectors were collecting for many different reasons. For instance, Kodály, who I mentioned earlier, and particularly Bartók, collected songs comprehensively – they’d have the music and words for every verse. It was a real musicological endeavour, whereas with the English collectors there was a certain romance to it all. They were trying to preserve Ye Merrie England, as they thought it existed. And also, to a certain extent, they were collecting melodies that would be turned into new pieces by Vaughan Williams or whoever else. So you often get the melodies, but it’ll often just be the melody that matches the first verse of words. If you’re lucky, you may get the rest of the words, but often it’ll just say ‘usual words’ underneath. So I think that explains why they collected in a different way, because they often collected for different reasons.

You studied at Oxford. Is that where you met the likes of Jon Boden? 

No, funnily enough, Jon Boden got to Oxford just after I left. I met John Spiers there because he came to Oxford while I was still living there. We met at sessions, and when I moved out of Oxford he took my room in a shared house. Just through the sessions in Oxford, I got to meet loads of itinerant performers and made various contacts. Through the Oxford Folk Club I got drafted in to play in a band in Newbury, and that’s where I met Paul Hutchinson, who I play with in Belshazzar’s Feast, which we formed in 1995. And it was through him, because he was living on the Welsh borders, that I met Benji Kirkpatrick, and that was the seed of Faustus, or Doctor Faustus as it was then – around about 1998.

And then there was a little band called Bellowhead. The story goes that the idea came to Spiers and Boden in a traffic jam. Is that the case? 

Well, as Eliza Carthy explained on this blog, the idea for a big band had been floating around the English folk scene for some time, partly inspired by a French-Canadian band called La Bottine Souriante, who were absolutely brilliant. So, yes, John and Jon got it together and they phoned me from a traffic jam. I was sitting waiting to do a gig with Belshazzar’s Feast at Hitchin Folk Club, and they said, “We’ve got this idea for a big band, and Oxford Folk Festival have booked us to do an expanded version of the duo. Do you fancy doing it?” Of course I said I did. Actually, the official first gig was Oxford Folk Festival, 2004, but the night before we did a ceilidh for someone’s wedding. I bumped into that chap about a year ago and he said he was very proud of the fact that he had Bellowhead as his wedding band and it was their first ever gig. Who’d have known it?

Do you remember much about it?  

I remember that Justin, our trombone player, tried to jump over a gate that afternoon… and missed [laughs]. He had to do the gig with a cracked rib. But that first gig was amazing – people jumping about all over the place – so we thought we’d carry on. We got booked for Sidmouth Folk Festival, and in the meantime we recorded an EP called EPonymous, just for promotional reasons. That won a folk award… for a demo, basically. We knew we were onto something, but none of us expected Bellowhead to do so well or last so long, and, generally speaking, the rest of the folk world were naysaying about us, saying we’d never get an 11-piece band on the road, and that it was a terrible idea. But off it went.

What do you miss about it?  

Erm… primarily my friends, because over the years we developed a lot of close bonds. I won’t pretend that I don’t miss what my partner calls, “the adrenalin and adulation” [laughs], because, you know, if you play in front of an audience of thousands of people, which I’d never done before and may never do again, you do get an enormous thrill from it. It’s an amazing high, but it’s a deep satisfaction as well, so I suppose I miss that. It was my day job as well, so there are a few implications there, but I think it was time to move on. All good things come to an end, and you’d prefer things not to get stale.

Was it Jon Boden’s decision to end it? 

Jon decided to leave, which he was well within his rights to do. We weren’t expecting it; we were making plans for the future. He says he expected us to carry on, but he was definitely the frontman – he had that mantle – and for us to carry on, either as the 10 of us or with someone new upfront, that would’ve been… I don’t think it would’ve worked. I think the audience would’ve missed it, the band would’ve missed it, and it was our image and our sound. Whether some form of the band will rise from the ashes in the future… who knows?

Are you still playing with him as part of The Remnant Kings? 

I am, yes. We’ve had a break for about three years, largely because of Bellowhead, but we’re recording later this year, doing some summer festivals and then going back on the road in November.

You may well be the busiest man on the folk scene… 

It certainly feels like it, yeah.

Beyond the obvious size thing, what’s the main difference between playing in Bellowhead and Faustus? What do you get out of one that you might not have with the other? 

In a sense Bellowhead was more relaxed, because there were so many people that if you made an error – unless it was in your big solo – nobody would really notice. I never felt the pressure quite so much in Bellowhead, whereas in Faustus there are only three of us, it’s more organic and we’re all front singers. It’s much more exposed. So, I suppose I miss having the relaxed gigs I’d have with Bellowhead, but being in that band was a bit like being in an orchestra, whereas with Faustus I feel that we own it more.

Is there an improvisational element to Faustus, or are you still fairly scored and scripted? 

There is a little bit. We do tend to rehearse quite thoroughly. Stuff tends to change quite a bit – not structurally, but in terms of augmentation and harmony lines.

And with Belshazzar’s Feast? What’s the difference there? It’s meant to be comedy, right? 

Haha! Well, that’s the idea. In theory!

Was that always the case? 

Yeah, it was. When we started doing dances, the comedy started with us putting snippets of other tunes into traditional things. At a ceilidh, you’re always playing the same tunes a billion times and it can get quite boring. So, as you do, you start to improvise and we started to realise that bits of other tunes fitted. It might be ‘The Birdie Song’, or the theme from The Archers… really just to make ourselves laugh. And we found that it actually made other people laugh, so it was there in the concerts from the beginning. It’s just the way we are, really. We can’t take things too seriously.

My daughter loved it. It’s the only concert she’s ever stayed awake through. 

Really!? I’m going to put that on our publicity! How old is she?

She’s eight. She slept through Eliza Carthy and Mawkin last week, on the front row. 

I’m definitely using that! No, I think we’re more in the vein of old-school performers. If you look at the revivals in the 20th century, and even now, to a certain extent, there was something very earnest about the folk music scene. And it goes right back to the collectors – to Cecil Sharp and George Gardiner, who was collecting here in Hampshire. They refused to collect anything that had even a whiff of Music Hall about it. They only collected stuff that they thought was from a pure peasant tradition, which we know wasn’t the reality.

Weren’t they quite willing to change things that they felt didn’t suit Victorian sensibilities? 

There was certainly an element of that going on. They would pick melodies that were definitely modal, ignoring the fact that most of their performers had learnt their songs through printed materials – broadsides and whatever else. As I said before, they were trying to recreate a kind of rural Arcadia, which never existed in the first place, but it was there as a sort of foil to the reality which was industrialisation and the industrial proletariat, many of whom were literate but the collectors felt their culture was degenerate. So, the reality is that a lot of singers were singing Music Hall songs alongside ancient ballads. And even right through the 20th century, when you hear field recordings from the 50s and 60s, people were singing all kinds of songs. They didn’t have a concept of what folk music was, or what traditional music was. They were just singing songs that they liked.

In the 50s in Bampton, just up the road, they were playing ‘Flowers of Edinburgh’ and ‘Constant Billy’ and all the old Morris tunes, but they were also playing ‘Rock Around the Clock’! That’s a perfect example of it all, really. So, with Belshazzar’s Feast, we’ve always said that our starting point is traditional music, and we love it, but really it’s all just music. We throw everything in.

In terms of traditional songs, are there songs yet to be discovered, or is it the case that we know them all now and the modern folk singer’s job is to reinterpret them in new ways?

There are still things popping up every now and then. I believe I’m right in saying that some cylinders of field recordings surfaced a few years ago, and I do know that their are tune books that have came to light relatively recently just down the road in Winchester at the records library. There’s a manuscript book there from Nether Wallop, which was compiled by a man called Richard Pyle in his early teens back in the 1800s. That’s been sitting there for donkey’s years, undisturbed. A few people know about it, but not many. Just over 10 years ago a few of us delved into it and got several of the tunes republished, and some of them were unknown. Some of them, like ‘The Oxford University Volunteers Quickstep’…

…catchy title!

Yeah, [laughs] maybe that’s the reason it didn’t catch on. Anyway, Faustus recorded it and I’ve taught it quite a lot, and now it’s often used in sessions. And that’s the most gratifying thing that can happen when you’re involved in music research – hearing those things going out into the wider world.

So when you go down to places like Halsway Manor, which I know you did with Faustus, are you finding stuff there when you dive into their archives? 

Yes, well there’s the Ruth Tongue Archive, which obviously Halsway knows about, and Bonny Sartin and his wife Cynthia (who is the librarian) knew about it, and a selection was published a few years ago by the assistant librarian Boddy Rhodes, who had known Ruth, but nobody had ever performed the songs. That’s partly because of the condition they were in: they were slightly fragmentary, and there was a lot of creative mediation by Ruth Tongue of the stuff she claimed she’d heard. So we had to bash a lot of it into shape. That’s harder work than finding a pre-formed song in the Gardiner manuscripts, or wherever. But yes, there’s still stuff out there.

When you do find a pre-formed song, presumably your job is to try to find a way to present that in a way that appeals to you and other people? 

Yeah, and to try to be true to the song itself. Apart from singing it solo and unaccompanied, which is how you imagine these songs were originally presented, being true to the song is a challenge in itself because, in so many performances, the arrangement has taken over from the song itself and the message hasn’t got through. So you have to be mindful of the fact that you are just a vessel for a song that predates you and is going to outlive you. You have to remain faithful to the spirit of that song.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about was The Transports. Did that get out of hand slightly? Did you expect it was going to be quite so well received? 

I had no idea. No idea whatsoever. I knew I had a 12-date tour, but it was really experimental. The original recording from 1977 is iconic on the English folk scene. The songs were all written by Peter Bellamy, who was this great figure, and the original recording had Nic Jones, Cyril Tawney, Norma Waterson, Mike Waterson, Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Bert Lloyd, Dave Swarbrick on fiddle… it’s amazing, and a lot of us have grown up listening to it. So we felt that we were on thin ice and it could go horribly wrong and people would think we were exploiting it.

So what I did was strip it back to the bare melodies. The original recording was scored by Dolly Collins, Shirley’s sister, and it was great, but very much of its time. It used early music instruments – an early music consort – and it’s quite ever-present. So I got rid of that and took the original melodies and arranged them for the modern ensemble. I thought that might prove controversial, so I was quite nervous about it. We also ditched the original narration which had been sung by Peter Bellamy – it was a little like recitative in opera – and Matthew Crampton, our storyteller, wrote a new story fleshing out the original and bringing it up to date with contemporary issues such as migration. It was incredibly powerful. But again, I thought people weren’t going to like us tampering with the original because it was so close to their hearts.

Universally, however, it went down an absolute storm, including with Jenny Bellamy – Peter’s widow. I was particularly anxious about her reaction, because that legacy belongs to her in a way. But because Matthew had done such a good job on it and because the instrumentalists were so good and the arrangements were so new, and because of the sheer calibre of the performers – for all those reasons we got a standing ovation every night and a five-star review in The Guardian, and we’re going to tour it again next year and maybe go to Australia with it. So… suddenly it has wings!

More immediately, though… there’s a Faustus tour and a new EP to sell. 

Yes! Sorry, I got lost in Transports world for a minute there. It took me a moment to come back to reality.

The new EP is from the album… 

It’s ‘Slaves‘, which is the first song on the album. There’s the studio version and a live version on the EP, and it has the radio edit of ‘One More Day‘, and a live version of a song called ‘Thresherman’ which Doctor Faustus recorded. There’s also a set of waltz tunes by Benji and Saul which we didn’t put on the album.

And you recorded this at Halsway Manor?  

Yes, we brought in a studio and recorded in room three, which is supposedly haunted. It has about six beds in it, so when we weren’t recording we could have a little lie down. Actually, we used the mattresses as sound baffles, and there’s a funny little decorative dome in the room which did funny things to the sound – like a kind of 70s-style reverb.

Did you have any ghostly experiences? 

Disappointingly, no. We thought that when the recording was done there might be some strange noises on it…

…but that was just Saul? 

Haha! Maybe.

It’s a 12-date tour, isn’t it? Do you have a favourite spot? 

I always enjoy playing here in Whitchurch because it’s my home crowd, and also because I can walk home afterwards. I know I’m guaranteed a decent reception here because the audience are mostly my neighbours, so I know where they live.

One thing that has been slightly bothering me that maybe you, as an experienced folkie, can answer: when you go to folk clubs the audience is always, shall we say, of retirement age. What’s the future for this scene? Is there one? 

Yes, well that’s been the case for decades, really. Things are certainly better than they were. It’s at festivals that you get a younger crowd. Certain festivals in particular, like Towersey, Sidmouth, Whitby… But in terms of regular venues, I’m not sure that the demography you’re talking about is particularly unique to folk music. I think it’s a bit like that across the board. I’m not sure that students even go to gigs anymore. The college circuit used to be a massive thing for musicians, but it’s certainly not like that anymore, and I think that’s to do with ticket prices, transport, disposable income, not to mention the internet and home entertainment. Audiences in general are staying at home more and more.

That’s a worry.

You’re telling me! I’ve got a mortgage to pay!

Help Paul Sartin, Saul Rose and Benji Kirkpatrick pay their mortgages this spring by heading out to catch Faustus on tour, starting in Grayshott on Saturday, April 1. Full details can be found on their website at www.faustusband.com

2 thoughts on “Paul Sartin on Bellowhead, Faustus, The Transports and a life in folk music

  1. Great article. Thank you. Will be helping Mr Sartin with his mortgage when we see Faustus on the 6th April.

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