Dave Swarbrick RIP – the Passing of a Legend

IT has taken me the whole weekend to get my head around the death of the most wonderful and idiosyncratic of all British musicians: David Cyril Eric Swarbrick.

Even now, some three days since his passing, I am still struggling to find words for Swarb – or just Dave to his many friends.

How do I find the right words for a man who died twice and has occupied an iconic status in my life for nigh on 40 years?

And a man regarded by many as the greatest fiddle player these islands have ever produced?

Although short in stature, he has always been larger than life with his high octane virtuoso fiddle playing, wit, banter and infectious personal charm.

A legend in every meaning of the word.

I first met Dave at the bar of Fairport Convention’s annual Cropredy Convention sometime in the late 1980s. A pint of beer in one hand and obligatory cigarette in the other, he giggled and gently spat jokes with us mere mortals, before asking politely: “Whose round is it?”

In recent years we maintained a good friendship through social media, sharing the same political outlook on “a world gone badly wrong”.

When his health started to finally fail in January this year – ironically at the time of David Bowie’s untimely death – I designed him a Get Well card with a picture of Bowie on the front and a “Message from God” simply stating: “you’ll have to wait, Dave”.

The juxtaposition of Bowie’s final Lazarus album, and Swarb’s final band, also called Lazarus was obvious to us both.

I sent the card to the hospital in Aberystwyth, where he was being treated. His wife, Jill, responded that he “loved it”.

His passing six months later is tragically sad, but somehow expected.

For many years Dave suffered steadily worsening health due to emphysema.

There was huge embarrassment for the Daily Telegraph in 1999, when it published a premature obituary for Swarb, after he was admitted to hospital in his home town of Coventry, with a chronic lung infection.

When informed that the musician was still alive the Telegraph’s obituaries editor and his staff were said to be “distraught”.

Luckily the piece made flattering reading, describing Swarb as “a small, dynamic, charismatic figure, cigarette perched precariously on his bottom lip, unruly hair flapping over his face, pint of beer ever at hand, who could electrify an audience with a single frenzied sweep of his bow”

After the initial shock and apologies, Dave could see the funny side, coming out with the priceless one-liner: “It’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry.”

“After all, I’d enjoyed the text of the obit – it was very complimentary,” he explained. “And it had answered a question I’d often asked myself: whether any paper would bother when I died.”

In fact Swarb went on to turn the newspaper’s error to his advantage, admitting that “I never got half as much attention playing as by dying.”

“So, I photocopied the obits, took them to gigs, signed them “RIP Dave Swarbrick” and sold them for £1.

“After all, where else are you going to get a signed obituary? I had to stop, though, when The Telegraph got in touch and told me I couldn’t do it as they had the copyright,” he later recalled.

Dave Swarbrick, the violinist and singer, was one of the most influential folk musicians of the 20th century.

He was born at New Malden, Surrey, on 5 April, 1941.

He was first drawn to folk music after taking up the guitar during the skiffle boom of the late 1950s.

When he was 16, the pianist Beryl Marriott invited him to join a ceilidh dance band. She also persuaded him to have another crack at the fiddle, which he had played as a child but which he had long since consigned to the attic.

In the 1960s Swarb was invited to play in some of the sessions of Ewan MacColl’s and Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads — setting stories about Britain’s fishermen, roadbuilders, miners, boxers and travellers to music.

Through these he was introduced to Ian Campbell, and joined the Ian Campbell Folk Group in time to play on their first record, EP Ceilidh At The Crown (1962); he went on to help establish them as stars of the emerging folk club scene.

I still have a faded poster from a gig the group played at Kirkwall in January 1966. It hangs on my living room wall, as one of many mementos.

A year earlier Swarb had been invited to play on Martin Carthy’s first album.

Later in 1966 – just as England were winning the World Cup – Swarb suddenly decided to emigrate to Denmark and marry his Danish girlfriend. But with little money and no return ticket, he was detained at the Hook of Holland by customs, and promptly sent home again.

He ended up staying in London with Martin Carthy, with whom he went on to develop an important partnership.

The intuitive interplay between Carthy’s guitar and Swarb’s fiddle was something entirely new. Their albums, Byker Hill (1967), But Two Came By (1968) and Prince Heathen (1969) broke the mould of traditional song arrangement and opened the door for the fusion of folk and rock.

When he was asked to play on a session for Fairport Convention in 1969, however, Dave had never even heard of the band.

He was initially booked for one number only, but he ended up playing on four tracks on Fairport’s Unhalfbricking album (1969) and was invited to join the band full time.

His first album as a fully fledged member of Fairport Convention was Liege and Lief (1969), which broke new ground in marrying traditional songs with rock.

Two members of the band, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings, walked out after disputes about the direction of their music. This left Swarbrick and the guitarist Richard Thompson to take their place at the core of the band.

Over the next 15 years, Fairport Convention undertook world tours and made more than a dozen albums.

After Richard Thompson’s departure in 1970, Swarb developed into a surprisingly sensitive songwriter, and also took on the role of lead singer. In 1971 he was the prime creative drive behind Fairport Convention’s most ambitious project, Babbacombe Lee, an album based on the story of John Lee, a convicted murderer who was reprieved after three attempts to hang him at Exeter in 1885 had failed.

Swarb remained a constant presence throughout the numerous internal disputes which disrupted Fairport.

But continual playing of the electric violin left him virtually deaf in one ear, and in 1984 he decided to retire.

During his Fairport years he had also released three well- received solo albums, Swarbrick (1976), Swarbrick 2 (1977) and Lift the Lid and Listen (1978).

He reverted to the acoustic violin as he returned to folk clubs with fellow Fairport member Simon Nicol.

He also made occasional returns to the Fairport fold, playing at their annual Cropredy Reunion Festival in Oxfordshire.

“I’m always amazed to listen to my Fairport stuff,” he said in 2014. “It’s so fast. What was I on?”

In 1988 Swarb linked up again with Martin Carthy. They made some successful tours, and produced a couple of fine albums, Life and Limb (1990) and Skin and Bone (1992).

He also spent some years in Australia, working with the guitarist and singer Alistair Hulett, with whom he recorded the impressive The Cold Grey Light (1998), before returning home.

Then came his hospitalisation with emphysema and the Telegraph’s infamous obituary.

Almost immediately his long-time friend and drinking buddy Dave Pegg and wife Christine launched the SwarbAid appeal.

This included a fund-raising concert at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in July 1999, and a limited-edition EP recorded live, to raise cash for Dave whilst his poor health prevented him from working.

It is a personal joy that I still have a copy of that EP.

After a relapse a few years later, they launched SwarbAid II with a similar concert in 2004 – and yes I have that T Shirt too!

Dave received his double lung transplant on 2nd October that year and a new lease of life.

In 2006, he started touring again with fellow ex-Fairporter, Maartin Allcock, and Kevin Dempsey – calling themselves, with a wink to the Telegraph’s premature obituary, Swarb’s Lazarus, producing the album Live and Kicking (2006) and appearing at the Cropredy Festival.

He also reignited his partnership with Martin Carthy, with whom in later years he regularly hit the road for an autumn tour.

In 2007 he joined his old cohorts from Fairport Convention on their 40th anniversary as a band at Cropredy to play their legendary album Liege and Lief, in its entirity on stage.

It is one of the highlights of my life to have been there and witness Swarb play as amazingly as ever.

In 2010, backed by a stellar array of guest musicians, Swarb released Raison D’être, his first solo album for nearly 20 years.

It was reviewed in more than 20 publications, the English Folk Dance and Song Society Magazine describing it as “the work of a fine fiddler who simply refuses to lie down and rest on his not inconsiderable laurels”.

In 2003, Swarb received the Gold Badge from the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Gold Badge of Merit from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.

In 2004 he received a lifetime achievement award in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and in 2006 Fairport’s Liege and Lief album was voted “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” by Radio 2 listeners.

At the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, he and Martin Carthy won the “Best Duo” Award. In 2012 he received another lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Fatea awards.

In the summer of 2014 – following a flurry of emails – I was lucky enough to visit Dave’s home in Coventry, where his wife Jill sold me one of his beautiful old fiddles from his Fairport days.

The fiddle also hangs in my living room – next to that 1966 poster.

I have determined that the fiddle is now retired and will never again be played.

Now as I type the last few words of this eulogy, I look down on the desk at a yellowed 1980 copy of The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs – distinguished by Dave’s signature on the inside cover… it was his own personal copy.

His album English Fiddler plays gently in the background.

In so many different ways, David Cyril Eric Swarbrick will always be part of my life.

Rest in Peace, great and wonderful man.

Dave Swarbrick is survived by his wife, the painter Jill Swarbrick-Banks, whom he married in 1999, and by a son and two daughters.

Born 5 April 1941, died 3 June 2016, aged 75.

 

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