December 24, 2009 – Tim Hart (Steeleye Span) was born January 9, 1948 in Lincoln, grew up in St.Albans Hertfordshire, where several young British music careers started in the sixties. His father was a vicar. At St Albans school, he was a member of the Rattfinks, a pop band that never rivalled the school’s best-known alumni, the hit-making Zombies. He worked, briefly, as a bookbinder, blacksmith, cost clerk, civil servant and hospital washer-up, while diversifying his musical interests and singing at St Albans folk music club. He met Maddy Prior there in 1965 and, by January 1966, they were singing together professionally.
Their contemporary look – as the English folk scene’s answer to America’s Sonny and Cher – youthful enthusiasm and stunning vocals guaranteed them club, concert and festival bookings. Within a short period, they had two albums on the Teepee label, Folk Songs of Olde England, volumes 1 and 2. Hart recalled that the album photo-shoot took longer than the recording. He was a natural musician, quickly becoming proficient on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, melodeon and Appalachian dulcimer.
When bass player founder Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention to form a new band in 1970, he looked around for innovative folk musicians who were prepared to perform traditional folk songs with electric instruments. Already established as a folk duo, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior leapt at the opportunity and Steeleye Span was born as in John “Steeleye” Span, featured in a Lincolnshire folksong, Horkstow Grange, collected by Percy Grainger in the early 20th century. The first months of Steeleye Span were unsettled. While they were living together to rehearse their debut album, tensions developed between Hart and Prior, and the other couple Hutchings had brought into the band, Terry and Gay Woods. When the album, Hark! The Village Wait (1970), was completed, the Woods’ decamped, to be replaced by an unknown fiddle-player, Peter Knight, and the renowned folk musician Martin Carthy, whom Hart had invited to join.
The new lineup enjoyed critical acclaim, with concert tours, a spell acting and singing in Keith Dewhurst’s play Corunna, and two further albums, Please to See the King (1971) and Ten Man Mop, Or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1972). In Steeleye Span’s early years, Hart and Prior continued to perform as a duo and, in 1971, they recorded a third, and final, album, Summer Solstice. But Hart was never happy playing in folk clubs: he found the atmosphere too constricting and the minds of the audiences closed to innovation.
With the departure of Carthy and Hutchings, to be replaced by the rock guitarists Bob Johnson and Rick Kemp, Hart and Prior became the leading figures in the band, ensuring that even with their heavier, rock sound, the songs still came from traditional folk sources. Although Hart contributed to Steeleye Span’s vocals, Prior’s swooping, distinctive voice dominated the sound. Hart’s banjo and guitar, and particularly his innovative electric Appalachian dulcimer playing, were crucial to the instrumental sound.
With their next two albums, Below the Salt (1972) and Parcel of Rogues (1973), Steeleye Span sealed their commercial success and played stadium concerts in the US. Their novelty Christmas release, Gaudete, led to a collaboration with Mike Batt, the creator of the Wombles pop act, who produced their eighth album, All Around My Hat (1975): the title track reached No 5 in the UK singles charts. Further hits eluded the band; there were more personnel changes and Hart, who had recorded an eponymous solo album in 1979, felt that Steeleye Span had run its course. He left in 1983.
By this time, his romantic relationship with Prior had ended, and he was married with two children, for whom he wrote some new nursery rhymes, released on the Music for Pleasure label in 1981 and 1983. He worked in music management and then, after the end of his marriage and with serious health issues, he moved to the small Spanish Canary island, La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco in 1988. He gave up music, built his own house, remarried and became a writer and photographer – in 2004 he wrote the first English-language guide to the island.
In 1995, Hart appeared at a Steeleye Span charity reunion concert. In autumn 2008, he joined Prior on stage at Cecil Sharp House in London for a BBC Electric Proms concert and together they sang some of the songs from their duo days in the 1960s. Forty years on, the voice and harmonies with Prior were a magical reminder of one of folk music’s great duos. Just a couple of months later, Hart was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and travelled to England to seek medical treatment, finally returning to La Gomera in early December where he died on Christmas Eve 2009.
He is survived by his second wife, Conny, and his children, Kim and Sally.
Robin Denselow wrote in a Tribute:
Tim Hart played a unique role in the British folk scene through his determination to bring traditional songs to a global audience and to show that Steeleye Span could share the stage with the biggest rock acts in the world. When we first became friends, back in the 1970s, I was impressed by his enormous energy and enthusiasm.
It was Tim who had the bravery to invite Martin Carthy to join the second Steeleye lineup, responsible for the folk-rock classic Please to See the King. And when Carthy and Ashley Hutchings left the band, it was Tim who made sure that Steeleye not only continued, but worked with pop producers such as Mike Batt and notched up hit singles and albums. Tim excitedly told me: “We are the first people to come out of the folk clubs since Ewan MacColl, to actually do something to English folk music”.
He was fascinated by the workings of the music industry, but was also a fine musician with a great love of traditional songs. As Maddy Prior put it: “He was fearless and very clever. He was a great singer and a lovely guitar and dulcimer player.” He also enthusiastically embraced the rock’n’roll lifestyle, and Carthy noted that “one delightful side to him was dressing like a dandy and enjoying it”.
His enthusiasm never deserted him, even when his life changed dramatically in the 1980s. After leaving Steeleye and a difficult spell working in management and production, his marriage collapsed and he was told that it was vital for his health that he should change his lifestyle. For more than two decades he lived modestly in La Gomera. Back in England in 2009, he showed enormous bravery during the long months of treatment for lung cancer, but was clearly delighted when told that new folk celebrities such as Jon Boden were fans of his work. According to Carthy, Tim had “great musical imagination, but I wish he had used his talents even more”. It is a tragedy for the folk scene that Tim never made a comeback.