Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Paul Sartin, recording a Christmas special as Belshazzar's Feast after lockdown

Remembering Paul Sartin (1971-2022)

This is a hard one to write. Let's call it catharsis. These aren't memories of the great man onstage, necessarily, but of a wonderful friend who lived just around the corner.

On Wednesday afternoon, around 3:30pm, I helped my dear friend Paul Sartin load his car before a gig. We ran the local folk club together, so this was nothing new. He kept some of his equipment in our spare room and he would frequently pop round to retrieve it. “I’ll see you… when?” he asked me. “I dunno. I’ll be around.” It’s how we often ended our conversations. It’s a small town. There aren’t too many folk-crazies knocking about.

I won’t see him again. He left us a few hours later. He was my fellow folk-geek buddy and my tea-drinking pal. It’s unusual for two people with such peculiar niche interests to live within 300 metres of one another. I felt very lucky that I had someone to share this passion with, and, on an almost weekly basis, we’d head into the local coffee shop together and natter away about traditional music. We did it this Tuesday. In fact, I went again yesterday, the morning after I received the news of his passing, but had to leave pretty quickly. His absence was too keenly felt.

When I first met him, I had no idea he was a member of Bellowhead, Faustus or Belshazzar’s Feast. Back in June 2013, I had been asked to play some songs at the Whitchurch Silk Mill. They suggested I learn some of “the local songs”. I didn’t know what that meant, and in the research that followed I began to discover source singers, song collectors and the songs of Henry Lee. I arrived at the gig with my band, only to find that we weren’t the only group to have been booked. On after us was Paul Sartin and members of the Andover Museum Loft Singers, the community choir that he ran and loved so very dearly. I remember this bearded gentleman looking somewhat confused as we sang a selection of songs that he went on to sing in his own set. He asked me afterwards where I had got them from. “I learnt them from Spotify”, I told him. We didn’t speak again for another two years.

Our next meeting was on a train back from London in 2015. I got on at Waterloo, the carriage was full and the only spare seat was opposite Paul and his eldest son. I asked him if he minded, and he welcomed me to sit down. I’m not sure if I knew just how well-respected a musician he was at this point, but I remember him introducing me to his son, saying, “This is Jon, another folk musician”. He did that every time he introduced me to anyone else for the rest of the time I knew him. I remember constantly having to adjust their expectations: “I play the guitar a bit. This guy is the folk musician.” He was incredibly humble and hilariously self-deprecating, something I realised properly when I first went to his house and saw his Bellowhead gold discs on the wall… of his toilet.

We re-launched the Whitchurch Folk Club together in autumn, 2017, assisted by my wife, Emi, and our good friends, Ricky Banks and Les Jordan. From the off, Paul was determined that it should be a place for traditional folk musicians to get a gig, but also for local people and local history to be celebrated. The aforementioned songs of Henry Lee were an abiding passion. He’d sing ‘If I Were a Blackbird’ or ‘Wild Rover’ at the drop of a hat. However, the first time he really took my breath away was when I heard him singing ‘Home Lad, Home’, a song with origins in the local area. So many people will remember his work with Belshazzar’s Feast for the joyous, ridiculous, comedy partnership he shared with Paul Hutchinson. I enjoyed all of that, too, but I used to sit quietly at their gigs, waiting and hoping for that song. He poured himself entirely into it every time, and in doing so instilled in me a deep awe and respect for the ways in which music, time and place are so richly intertwined. Listening to it now is almost unbearably poignant.

Between October 13th, 2017 and July 22nd, 2022, we ran around 35 concerts at the folk club, as well as a number of sessions in the early days. It was always homely – Paul bringing his illustrious musician friends in to perform, and launching the first event with a performance by Bampton Morris, the side I think he most adored. I know that the audiences were gobsmacked at the level of talent that came through. People would often leave at the end of a night and tell me how lucky they felt that we had so many world-class musicians visiting our little old Parish Hall. We also made sure that the support acts were local kids, as often as we could. Paul was delighted when I came up with the idea of allowing them to play anything they liked, providing they learnt and included at least one traditional song in their set. They didn’t always stick to the rules, but I will always remember the shivers running down my spine when one young musician, Hope Monk, sang the locally-collected song, ‘If I Were a Blackbird’, and all the older people in the audience joined in. It was a magical moment: the town’s intergenerational music lovers coming together in harmony on this song that Paul had done so much to keep alive. I remember looking at him proudly and thinking, “Well done, mate. This is all you.”

He loved the folk club, and he rarely missed a concert. I asked him a number of times why he didn’t get up on stage with his friends more often for an impromptu jam. “I’m off duty here,” he would say. He wasn’t very keen on making pre-gig introductions and announcements, unless they were his oldest friends. With the exception of our annual New Year Ceilidhs (when he could be seen onstage throughout, usually wearing a ginger wig and flat cap), he preferred to stay in the kitchen, doing the washing up, only creeping into the back seats when the lights were down and the set had started. There, he’d quietly revel in the music. It touched him hugely. I recall us both listening to Peter Knight and John Spiers, tears streaming down our faces. He just loved being able to facilitate an appreciation of folk music in any way he could. Most recently, he pulled together the most wonderful event in aid of the refugee crisis. He filled the local church, some 250 seats, and programmed an evening of music and camaraderie. It was a joy to be one of the performers, and even more of a joy to see him pull it off.

Faustus were the first band we put on at the folk club, and the evening was completely sold out. I recall a local chap – a non-folkie – turning to me with his eyes wide and his mouth agog, amazed that these three guys, essentially playing acoustic instruments, could put out that kind of sound. And he was right to be astounded. Together, they were a powerhouse; three close friends who knew each other so well, in so many ways, weaving melodies and rhythms in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. When I fell in love with traditional folk music and my old friends seemed unable to get their heads around it, I always pointed them towards Faustus. I defy anyone to listen to their tune set, ‘Next Stop: Grimsby/ The Three Rascals/ Aunt Crips’ without twitching and feeling the uncontrollable desire to hop around. My thoughts have turned to Benji and Saul countless times since the news came through.

My thoughts, of course, are also with Paul’s family. He was the patriarchal member of Sartin & Sons, of whom he was so proud. I shall cherish the memories I have of playing sessions with Will and his father at the long-gone Red House, here in Whitchurch, and I so looked forward to hearing the recordings Paul said he intended to make with James, although I doubt I shall now. The pride and love he showered on Joe whenever he brought him onstage to duet on ‘The Brisk Lad’ – “our family heirloom”, as he often put it, referring to his ancestral relationship with the source singer, Edith Sartin – rarely left a dry eye in the house. He would stuff our ceilidh stages with our children and our friends – Theo and Kai would thrash guitars and pound cajons, desperately trying to keep up with Squeezy’s chords and Paul’s soaring fiddle.

The late musician, Paul Sartin, dressed in Belshazzar's Feast smock and hat, making a Christmas Special between lockdowns.
Paul Sartin in Belshazzar’s Feast mode, filming a Christmas Special between lockdowns. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

Away from the stage, Paul was a hugely popular chap, deeply in love with his adopted, North Hampshire home. “This is it for me,” he told me recently. “I have everything I need here. It’s a wonderful town.” He was heavily involved in local life, especially when music was required. He took the Andover Loft Singers community choir to great heights, involving them in so many of his projects around the country and helping them to give voice to so many Whitchurch and Hampshire songs. He taught so many of the town’s children, my own kids included, and he went out of his way to help them carve out a lasting relationship with music. If you can picture the scene: when my then-14-year-old son told him he quite liked Finneas (the brother/producer of Billie Eilish), Paul went out and found sheet music for ‘Partners in Crime‘, and then spent time trying to convey the best methods of singing it. I’m not sure Paul knew who or what a Finneas was, or quite what to do with one when he encountered it, but that didn’t matter. If a Finneas was what his student wanted, then a Finneas is what his student got.

I never saw a difficult side to Paul (if we can gloss over his inability to get out of bed before midday – sorry for being so stroppy, Paul; I just had places to be). I’m certainly not attempting to make him out as a saint; I knew him as a friend and colleague for seven short years only, but he was only ever a wonderful buddy in that time. Sure, he complained about things. He had stuff he needed to get off his chest. I did, too. When I had a complete nervous breakdown last year and had to spend three months in bed, he told me, “We’ll get you through this”, and he checked in on me repeatedly, offering to do my shopping and taking me out for brief cups of tea as I got my bearings back. He would often go up to the local care home on Christmas day to make sure the old folk had some music to sing along to, and he was a huge part of the town carol singing and nearby mummers’ shows at the end of each year. In the brief hours before he passed, he was standing in my kitchen talking to my daughter about her GCSE prospects. The space he leaves in our community will remain unfilled.

Towards the tail end of lockdown, we would put on impromptu live gigs together – Folk in a Field, we called them – where we would play for local dog-walkers while streaming the performance to people as far away as California, just to keep everyone’s boredom at bay. I loved playing with Paul as a musician, and those little online gigs were my favourite moments. He was incredibly patient and relaxed, while at the same time managing to get the best out of you (something I’ve found playing with John Spiers, too – another of Paul’s introductions). When we first played together, I couldn’t even slightly pretend to be a folk musician. We arranged a few of the Henry Lee songs, which we always intended to record but never did. My arrangement of ‘The Haymaking Song’ sounded like it was being played by The Smiths… which delighted him. “It doesn’t sound anything like folk music,” I told him by way of apology. “That’s exactly why I love it!” he replied, explaining to me that these songs could be reinterpreted in any way we liked. One of his repeated phrases was, “These are not museum pieces. They’re alive!”

As I became more interested in accompanying traditional tunes, he helped me on that journey. In our few public performances together, we would always end on ‘Astley’s Ride’. It just seemed to bounce along, and we got to a lovely point where we would spark off the glint in each other’s eyes – something that Paul Hutchinson, Faustus and his Bellowhead mates must have experienced a million times over. In that regard, he was my folk teacher. I have a file on my computer full of Morris tunes from the Midlands, all recorded by Paul on his phone, all with off-the-cuff remarks (“Here’s a good one,” “Bit rubbish, that”), simply because he wanted to push me further. He was very encouraging of my increasing interest in songs from my hometown. “Brummie songs,” he laughed in his fake Slade accent. “That can be your thing!”

I never got to see Bellowhead live, but I’m well aware that, to thousands of fans, that’s where his legacy will lie. He will mean so many different things to so many people. Beloved father, partner, bandmate, late-night session buddy, always up for a curry, musical hero, mentor, raconteur, exquisite musician and a hugely dynamic performer. To me, he was my friend and neighbour, somebody I could hatch hair-brained, folk-fuelled schemes with. For the moment, at least, those plans will have to wait. Now’s the time to remember a truly lovely man.