Paul Sartin, who has died aged 51, was classically trained as an oboe player, violinist and singer, but found his niche as a self-styled “folk geek”, making his mark as a composer, arranger, tutor, choirmaster and performer in a dazzling array of musical outlets.
These included the comedic duo Belshazzar’s Feast, the largely traditional group Faustus and, most famously, the 11-piece big band Bellowhead, whose third album, Hedonism (2010), is the highest-selling independently released folk album of all time, selling 80,000 copies. Naturally unassuming and self-deprecating, Sartin was amazed to find himself headlining festivals with Bellowhead.
Interviewed by the folk musician Jon Wilks, he recalled: “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.”
He was, however, unmoved by the idea of celebrity. Cherished by his contemporaries for his consummate musicianship, he was passionately committed to promoting music at grassroots level, and to keeping traditional songs alive. As he put it, “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.”
Born in London on February 20 1971, he was brought up by a single mother, Angela, who played the fiddle. He won scholarships to Highgate School and the Purcell School for Young Musicians, going on to perform in a musical theatre troupe, as well as in the English National Opera’s Baylis youth project and various orchestras.
Having been “brought up with mainly classical and nonconformist chapel music – hymns and orchestras”, when he first heard an American folk song on the radio, it was “quite exotic”.
It was performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody No 2 which piqued his interest in the English folk tradition and, aged 16, he would cycle each week from his home in Willesden to Sharps Folk Club in Camden, then “wobble back, because they used to serve me underage”.
It was there he sang his first folk song in public, a Herefordshire carol collected by Vaughan Williams called This Is the Truth. One regular, a drunken Glaswegian, “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!’” What he jokingly called “my introduction to the warm and loving bosom of English folk music” was “a red rag to a bull”. He was captivated, “by the scene, and the sheer beauty of the music”.
He then won a choral scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Music and sang as a lay clerk at Christ Church Cathedral, a position he held for five years. He also discovered a direct lineage to the folk tradition on learning that Victorian collectors had unearthed a rich mine of songs from his female ancestors, the sisters Edith and Marina Sartin, who became the subject of his 2005 masters degree at the University of Newcastle. (He was tickled to find Marina Sartin described by a song collector as “severely diminished in her faculties and teeth”.)
At Oxford he also played informally in folk sessions and joined a group, Life of Reilly, leaving in 1995 to form the duo Belshazzar’s Feast with the accordion player Paul Hutchinson. Initially, they concentrated on historical dance music and the work of the 18th-century composer Nathaniel Kynaston, but gradually their wit led them into surreal new territory, playing everything from The Archers theme to cheesy pop, Sartin dabbling with the kazoo and Swanee whistle.
They remained a much-loved duo for more than 25 years, releasing nine albums, including Mr Kynaston’s Famous Dance, Vol 1 (2000) and John Playford’s Secret Ball (2001). He was also in the trio Faustus, with Saul Rose and Benji Kirkpatrick, releasing the albums Faustus (2008), Broken Down Gentlemen (2013) and Death & Other Animals (2016).
In 2004 he received a call from the duo Jon Biden and John Spiers who, stuck in a traffic jam on the M25, had conceived the idea of a folk big band – and would he like to be involved? Making their official debut at Oxford Folk Festival, Bellowhead went on to become the most successful British folk band of modern times, winning eight BBC Folk Awards and breaking into the charts with their albums Broadside (2012) and Revival (2016). They split in 2016 but reunited this year to record a new album, with a tour planned for November.
Sartin also sang at Winchester Cathedral as deputy lay clerk, composed for choirs and operatic productions, toured with Bellowhead fiddler Sam Sweeney in his 2014 show Made in the Great War and was musical director of the successful touring revival of Peter Bellamy’s 1977 folk opera, The Transports.
He also loved playing unannounced informal sessions and, having settled in Whitchurch, Hampshire, helped to revive the Whitchurch Folk Club.
He was in the early stages of embarking on a solo career when he arrived to play a gig in Oxford with Saul Rose, and suddenly collapsed and died.
Paul Sartin married Jennie Bailey; the marriage was dissolved and he is survived by their three sons, James, Will and Joe, who are also musicians.
Paul Sartin, born February 20 1971, died September 14 2022