By any standards, 2016 has so far been a terrible year for celebrity deaths. Some have been global superstars and have been widely mourned, and shamelessly used as an excuse for those Z-listers who hang onto the coat tails of the rich and famous – I wrote about this in Starman. Others have been more localised, but none the less tragic for that. I suspect that most of you reading this will never have heard of the person I am writing about, particularly as he died on the same day as Muhammad Ali, although The Times did a rather nice (almost) full page obituary of him yesterday. He wouldn’t have been expecting a 16 page tribute though, so no harm done!
Does the name Dave Swarbrick mean anything to you? No? I thought not. Swarb, as he was universally known, was a fiddle player, singer and songwriter who was a major part of the English folk music scene for over 50 years. He was well loved and respected by fellow artists in this field, and adored by devotees of this style of music, of whom I count myself one. Although not the only one to do it – and there have been many following in his footsteps – he was one of the first to play an electronically amplified fiddle in a band, taking the place of what would otherwise have been another electric guitar. That band was Fairport Convention, which Swarb joined in 1969 having originally been asked to help out on a few tracks of their Unhalfbricking album. Under his influence, the band moved away from being an English wannabe version of Buffalo Springfield and developed a uniquely English style, reworking traditional folk standards. Their first album with Swarb was Liege and Lief, released in 1969, which has become a seminal record in the modern folk rock genre in England. Some years ago it was voted as the most influential folk album of all time, and holds the further accolade of being one of the very few albums that I have owned on vinyl, cassette and CD – a rare distinction! The band is widely known across Europe but, as far as I know, this style hasn’t travelled to North America – please correct me if I’m wrong! I first saw them play live while I was at university around 1973, and have seen him in a number of gigs since then. His contribution always made a difference.
Swarb was the possessor of a wicked sense of humour. This came to the fore when, in 1999, he was rushed into intensive care after falling ill at a show in Coventry and the Daily Telegraph printed an obituary in error. From his comments he clearly saw the funny side of this:
That wasn’t the first time I’ve ‘died’ in Coventry! I did think of suing, but it was such a good obituary that my lawyer thought it could be argued that it had actually furthered my career. The tabloid press were camped outside my home and in the hospital grounds and it was the most publicity I’d had for years.
His wife brought the newspaper into hospital at 8.30am to show him the obituary. As he said, ‘she was keen to tell me I was dead before anyone else did.’
He recovered from this, and named the new band he formed ‘Lazarus.’ See what I mean about his humour? But his health continued to decline, culminating in a double lung transplant. Through it all he continued to make music, and we have a rich legacy to enjoy. I’ve been playing a lot of his music over the past few days and I thought I’d leave you with one of his best known songs, which was co-written with Richard Thompson, a founder member of the Fairports and a renowned singer songwriter – including in North America 🙂 :
That song was the opening track on the band’s Full House album, and was for many years the opening song of their live shows. The sound quality in that clip is pretty appalling, but it is 46 years old, and I hope it gives you an idea of the man and his music. It has the advantage of being the only clip of the song I could find that also included Richard Thompson, one of my favourite musicians. The chorus runs:
Walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me,
The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree.
That seems to me a pretty good way to live our lives: understanding comes from sharing and talking, not from avoiding and attacking.