Interview: Mike Harding

Mike Harding. Picture: Roger Ratcliffe
Mike Harding. Picture: Roger Ratcliffe
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Folk musician, storyteller, author and radio presenter, the often overlooked Mike Harding is back with a new tour. He talks to Chris Bond.

IT’S interesting that multi-talented chaps like Stephen Fry and Simon Callow are referred to in gushing terms as “renaissance” men, while others are regarded, less flatteringly, as jacks of all trades.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, or perhaps it’s old fashioned snobbery, but Mike Harding’s name doesn’t often find itself sharing a sentence with the word “renaissance”.

Which is a shame, because his talents cover just as broad a palette as those of Messrs Fry and Callow.

With the exception of films, Harding has turned his creative hand to just about everything. As a folk musician for more than 40 years he has toured all over the world and worked with the likes of George Melly and Ralph McTell, while his weekly BBC Radio 2 show has become essential listening for fans of folk, roots and acoustic music.

He has written poetry, short stories, travel, humour and children’s books and won several awards including the Signal Prize For Children’s Literature. Most people though probably know him for his music and he has just started his first major tour in more than 15 years.

That’s a long hiatus, especially for someone whose tour schedule at one time could have rivalled Bob Dylan’s.

“I ended up doing lots of other things,” he says. “I went trekking in India, Pakistan and Nepal and I was living out of my rucksack for three months. I’d been touring all my working life but there was so much going on I didn’t have the time so I put it on the back burner and it went cold.” Then last year a friend asked him to play the Ingleton Folk Festival, where he went down well and he followed this up with a couple of small gigs, including one at the Georgian Theatre, in Richmond.

“I walked out on stage and the wave of human warmth that greeted me was really moving. It wasn’t just clapping, it was something else. I’m not saying it was spiritual but there was a genuine human connection and appreciation as I stepped out into the footlights.”

His new tour – Me, a guitar and some more daft stuff – is heading across the country with shows in Doncaster, Huddersfield, Leeds, Wakefield and Scarborough before finishing in York on November 26. It’s a mixture of songs, stories and stand-up with Harding drawing on a lifetime of material to entertain audiences. He says he’s happy to be playing smaller crowds. “I don’t want to do the 2,000 seater venues I did before, I much prefer playing art centres and small theatres because I enjoy the more intimate atmosphere.”

His fascination with storytelling dates back to his childhood, growing up in Lancashire. “It came from my grandfather. He was an Irishman and every time he’d come over from Dublin and stay with us it was like Christmas because he would tell all these wonderful, funny stories, they always had a complete narrative and I would listen to him for hours.”

As well as stories, he developed a love of music and played in skiffle and rock ’n’ roll bands as a teenager and it was during a gig in Leeds with The Edison Bell Spasm Band in 1967 that he started telling jokes to fill in the awkward gaps between songs.

“I started telling gags and ad-libbing and by the end of the night it seemed to be going okay so I thought I’d test the water and go out on my own.”

Eight years later The Rochdale Cowboy became a top 30 hit and brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Since then, he has become an integral part of the British folk scene. “People go into pop music because they want to be famous, but you become a folk musician because you can’t not do it.”

Having lived in the Yorkshire Dales for the past 40 years he feels defined by his Northern roots. “It informs everything I do from songwriting, to poetry and stand-up. I’m no country mouse but whenever I’m travelling back on the train from London I can feel the shackles falling off. It’s a funny old thing but I couldn’t live anywhere else.”

Although he admits he’ll never be a true Yorkshireman in some people’s eyes. “You’ve got to have three generations buried in the graveyard before you can become a Dalesman, and even then you still won’t convince some people.”

For details of Mike Harding’s tour visit his website www.mikeharding.co.uk

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE DALES

Mike Harding was born in Crumpsall, Manchester in 1944.

In the ’60s he shared the bill with The Hollies – “the slickest band I’ve ever seen”, and The Beatles – “It was obvious they were going to be huge. I remember sitting in a café listening to their first album thinking this is the end of us all because they were playing more than three chords and that’s all we knew.”

Harding has written over 40 books and produced more than 20 albums.

He is a lifetime vice-president of The Ramblers and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.