Paul Sartin obituary

Versatile performer who took a variety of approaches to folk music with the groups Bellowhead, Faustus and Belshazzar’s Feast

Paul Sartin, who has died aged 51 of a heart attack, was a classically trained musician who devoted his talents to English folk music, becoming a member of the multi-award winning folk band Bellowhead. His superb musicianship was also heard in the folk trio Faustus and in the duo Belshazzar’s Feast.

Formed in 2004, Bellowhead was conceived by folk duo Jon Boden and John Spiers while stuck in a traffic jam; they immediately phoned Paul to invite him to join the band. With its combination of high energy musicianship, a dynamic brass section and distinctive percussion, plus a diversity of musical influences, the 11-piece Bellowhead immediately became popular with folk audiences, but also crossed over to other musical genres and performed on Later... with Jools Holland.

Their recording of Barwick Green, the theme tune to Radio 4’s The Archers, introduces the Sunday morning omnibus edition. Hedonism (2010) became the biggest-selling independently released folk album.

Paul’s role in the band was crucial: his oboe playing was distinctive, his fiddle playing formed part of a strong string section, he provided back-up vocals and hilariously introduced the songs on stage. Paul also edited Bellowhead: The Songbook for Faber Music.

The band won eight BBC Radio 2 Folk awards, including best live act five times. Although they stopped performing in 2016, a reunion tour is scheduled for the late autumn.

Paul Sartin with Bellowhead on their Hedonism Live tour, 2011

Having worked closely with Boden, Paul was invited to join his band the Remnant Kings in 2009 to perform Boden’s post-apocalyptic song cycle Songs from the Floodplain.

Paul was born in south Croydon and brought up by his mother, Angela Sartin, a civil servant, in Willesden, north London. His mother encouraged him to play the piano, violin and recorder and when his musical talents became apparent, he attended Highgate school and then the Purcell School for Young Musicians on assisted places schemes.

After two gap years, playing for a time in English National Opera’s Baylis project, Paul went to Magdalen College, Oxford, on a choral scholarship, graduating in music in 1994. He then spent five years as a lay clerk at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. All this time he was developing his interest in folk music. At Purcell, he had been introduced to modal folk melodies and the works of Zoltán Kodály and Ralph Vaughan Williams. At 16, he was cycling to Sharp’s folk club in Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, making his folk singing debut there.

Paul Sartin with Bellowhead at the Wickerman festival, Dundrennan, Scotland, in 2013. As well as the oboe and violin, he played the swanee whistle and was a vocalist.
Paul Sartin with Bellowhead at the Wickerman festival, Dundrennan, Scotland, in 2013. As well as the oboe and violin, he played the swanee whistle and was a vocalist. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns/Getty Images

After university, Paul briefly played in the folk band Life of Reilly. One of his bandmates was the accordionist Paul Hutchinson and together they formed Belshazzar’s Feast in 1995. They initially played ceilidhs and social dances, where they were required to play the same tune over and over; but they began to sneak in snatches of unlikely classical and pop tunes, and their humorous musical style continued in concert performances, with Sartin adding the swanee whistle to the fiddle and oboe. They made 11 albums and completed a farewell tour in May 2022, although they played for dances at the Sidmouth folk festival in the summer.

In 1998, Paul was a founding member of Dr Faustus, a four-piece band with Tim van Eyken, Rob Harbron and Benji Kirkpatrick. With an emphasis on English songs and tunes, the band toured for Live Music Now, taking their music into prisons and special needs schools, before recording their debut album, The First Cut, in 2003. The band split but reformed as plain Faustus in 2006, with the melodeon player Saul Rose instead of Harbron and Van Eyken. Popular at folk festivals, the trio made three albums, the last being Death and Other Animals (2016).

Paul continued his academic interest in music, achieving a master’s degree in traditional music at Newcastle University, then becoming a visiting tutor on its folk degree course. He was fascinated to discover that folk songs sung by two of his distant relatives, Marina Russell and Edith Sartin, had been collected in Dorset in the early 20th century: Paul researched and recorded their songs.

Paul also worked as a vocal tutor at St Edward’s school, Oxford, and in 2000 became a deputy lay clerk in Winchester Cathedral choir.

He worked on many musical projects and in 2017 made new arrangements for a production of Peter Bellamy’s folk opera The Transports, which toured the country to critical acclaim, leading to a Radio 3 broadcast and a CD the following year. He was much admired by fellow musicians: Bryony Griffith described him as “musically intelligent, inventive, reliable and fun”.

In contrast to his national touring, Paul was also deeply involved in community music-making. He led the Andover Museum Loft Singers, a community choir specialising in local folk songs, in Hampshire. There and in other smaller settings, such as the music and song workshops at the Halsway Manor folk centre in Somerset, his kindness, generosity and humour shone through.

In addition he led a regular choir workshop at the Sidmouth festival and edited a collection of folk songs in Faber’s community choir series.

Paul’s early orchestral and choral work were crucial in defining his approach to folk music: he brought his musical training to his folk music arrangements and had a preference for performing with others in bands rather than as a solo performer.

His marriage to Jennie Bailey ended in divorce. He is survived by their three sons, James, William and Joseph, and his mother.

• Paul Jonathan Sartin, folk musician, born 20 February 1971; died 14 September 2022


Derek Schofield

The GuardianTramp

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