Hughes, Herbert (1882–1937), musician, critic, and folksong arranger, was born 16 March 1882 at 23 Vicinage Park, Belfast, son of Frederick Patrick Hughes, commercial traveller (later senior partner in Hughes, Dickson & Co, flour millers), and Mary Hughes (née McClean). Both parents were well known singers in local concerts and belonged to the choir of St James's parish church. Herbert Hughes became organist of St Peter's parish church on the Antrim Road at the age of 14. He entered the Royal College of Music in London in 1901.
In 1898 in London there had been formed the Folk Song Society: the four vice-presidents were Sir John Stainer (England), Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (qv) (Ireland), Sir Alexander Mackenzie (Scotland), and Sir Hubert Parry (Wales), and the society's journal catered for all four countries. In 1903 there took place ‘a friendly secession’ (Donal O'Sullivan, preface, p. iii), in which the prime movers were Charlotte Milligan Fox (qv) and Alfred Perceval Graves (qv), and the Irish Folk Song Society, also London-based, came into being. Herbert Hughes's parents and his brother Frederick Cairns Hughes had a keen interest in transcribing the traditional music they heard in Donegal and elsewhere. The early issues of the journal of the Irish Folk Song Society show Herbert Hughes, then a student at the Royal College of Music, as co-editor with Charlotte Milligan Fox and also, with his brother, as contributing airs. The editorial preface to the first issue declared the society's aim to be ‘to collect all the unpublished traditional airs and ballads of the Irish race, and to print and publish as many as possible from time to time … It is not the object of the society to harmonise or “arrange” these airs, but simply to record them as they were found’. The subscription for residents in London was half-a-guinea (£0.525) a year, to ‘country members’ 5s. (£0.25). Hughes does not appear as connected with the journal or the society after 1905.
He made his career in London in musical journalism. After contributing to the New Age for some years he joined the Daily Telegraph as music critic in 1911, and in 1931–2 was music editor of the Saturday Review. In the first world war he joined the Artists’ Rifles and served on Allenby's intelligence staff in the Middle East. After the war he visited the USA, where he married his second wife, the actress Suzanne McKernan. They had two daughters. By his first marriage he had a son, Patrick Cairns Hughes (1908–87) who as Spike Hughes made a considerable career in the worlds of dance music and jazz and as a music critic and broadcaster.
Herbert Hughes's interest in Irish traditional music continued, and he published a good many airs under such titles as Songs of Uladh, Songs from Connaught, and The Kilmacrenan edition. It is ironic, however, in view of the aims of the Irish Folk Song Society, that his lasting reputation should rest on the four volumes of the felicitous arrangements for voice and piano which he published as Irish country songs. The first volume appeared in 1909, the last a few days before he died. They fitted in well with the drawing-room-ballad market of which Hughes's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, had such a large share, and it was no coincidence that he became their artistic adviser. With the performing advocacy of Harry Plunket Greene (qv) in the British Isles and his close friend John McCormack (qv) in America, they became very popular.
He died after a short illness on Saturday 1 May 1937 in Brighton, Sussex, England, where he and his wife and two daughters had taken a house for the season.