Tim Hart: Founder-member of Steeleye Span

By Jon Lusk
Saturday 02 January 2010 01:00

Best known for the years he spent as a founding member of the English electric folk-rock band Steeleye Span, Tim Hart was a singer and multi-instrumentalist who also turned his hand to writing and photography.

He did this after retiring from the music industry to live on the lushly forested island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for which he published the first English-language tourist guide.

Although Steeleye Span were preceded by Fairport Convention as the first truly great exponents of the genre (one of whom, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings, would initiate Steeleye Span's first line-up in December, 1969) they were arguably more successful. As Hart explained of their brief: "The original idea was to combine English and Irish material and to get traditional performers to present traditional material in a way that would be acceptable to rock audiences."

And so it was, on often chaotic but enthusiastically received tours of the US, Australia, the UK and elsewhere during their '70s heyday, touring with the likes of Jethro Tull and Procol Harum before the arrival of punk rock turned the tide of fashion. Maddy Prior was always the band's most distinctive singer, and finally left them in 1997, returning five years later. She once observed: "Steeleye Span is like a bus. It goes along, and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go, and sometimes it turns off, so you get off."

Hart eventually got off in 1982, disillusioned with the lack of commercial success that greeted Sails of Silver, the 11th Steeleye Span studio album, after six major line-up changes. During his time in the group, as well as playing guitar, banjo, dulcimer and other instruments, Hart penned poetic sleeve notes, contributed material and arrangements and was often instrumental in bringing in new members such as Martin Carthy, who was the one who had come up with the group's name. Hart was romantically involved with Prior and often sang duets with her, such as "My Love". He was the featured vocalist on a number of their best-known pieces, most notably "Blackleg Miner" and "John Barleycorn". He also wrote comical poems, which Prior would read out onstage while the band tuned up – a skill he later put to use on a brace of albums of nursery rhymes he recorded with musical associates in 1981 and 1983.

Hart grew up in St Albans, where his father was a vicar. He began his career while still at St Alban's School, playing with a band called the Rattfinks. He went on to perform in the local folk club, where he met Prior in 1965. In December the following year, they formed a professional duo.

Their speciality was the obscure folk songs they found in libraries and collections, and in 1968 they released the albums, Folk Songs of Olde Engand Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Prior later said of them: "These had been recorded on a four-track machine and took as long to make as they take to play. Well, almost." With the bigger budgets afforded by the success of Steeleye Span, Hart and Prior made another duo album, Summer Solstice, in 1971, and Hart released a poorly-received eponymous solo album in 1979.

Hart first began taking photographs during the early 1970s on tour with Steeleye Span, which gave him the chance to befriend photographers documenting the band. He began including other bands, landscapes and street scenes in his work, some of which went on a touring exhibition of the US.

After leaving Steeleye Span he went into band management and produced the album Eligible Bachelors (1982) for the leftfield indie rock band Monochrome Set. In poor health after the breakdown of his first marriage, he moved in 1988 to the sunnier climes of La Gomera, where he built his own house, learned how to use a digital camera, remarried and eventually published La Gomera: A Guide to the Unspoiled Canary Island (2004).

He was persuaded to come temporarily out of retirement to rejoin Steeleye Span in 1995, for a concert in aid of the charity War Child (a recording of which emerged in 1999) and to perform with Prior and others for the BBC Electric Proms in October 2008. Two months later he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and he and his wife Conny returned to the UK to seek medical treatment for him.

Tim Hart, musician, writer and photographer: born Lincoln 9 January 1948; married twice (two daughters from first marriage): died La Gomera, Canary Islands 24 December 2009.

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