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Dave Swarbrick: the little giant of British folk-rock. RIP

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A further article about Dave Swarbrick's death - with a poignant message from his widow Jill ("a privilege to be married to the old sod ... such colour and energy, love and that fiddle!") - now appears at http://www.francesalut.com/2016/06/dave-swarbrick-folk-fiddler-exemplaire.html, where Jill also enables me to clarify the circumstances of his passing.

Today I learned with great sadness of the death at 75 of Dave Swarbrick, who mercifully lived 17 years after the obituaries department of The Daily Telegraph mistakenly recorded his death.
Like most of Swab's fans, I was aware he had been poorly with his chronic condition, emphysema, for some months but had, too optimistically it now transpires, believed he was making a good recovery. His passing leaves an enormous gap in the world of British folk and folk-rock music and I offer my sincere condolences to his wife, Jill, and the rest of his family.
We can be comforted a little that the Telegraph obit was not only wildly premature but was followed by a happy rewarding period of Swarb's life, especially after the double lung transplant in 2004 that undoubtedly enabled him to live and also to play again. I had interviewed him the previous year as he awaited that operation, unsure when or even it would occur.

This was the article I wrote for the Telegraph as a result:

It takes a remarkable man to spend most days bedridden, oxygen tubes snaking across his face, and anywhere beyond the next room unreachable without assistance, and still believe he has led a charmed life.

But Dave Swarbrick, the most acclaimed violinist - he'd say fiddler - in English folk music, feels he can overlook his immediate predicament and consider himself lucky to be alive at all.

Last weekend, Swarbrick launched Swarb!, a four-CD boxed set charting his work in assorted bands and duos over the past 45 years, complete with sheet music and an absorbingly chaotic, 136-page book. He has also released an album of his own tunes recorded in the impressive studio next to his bedroom.

Yet more than once during that career, Swarb - as he is known to a sizeable army of friends and admirers - has cheated death. In 1969, the van carrying the folk-rockers Fairport Convention home from a gig crashed on the M1, killing the drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's American girlfriend Jeannie Taylor. Swarb had just joined the band; had the accident happened days later, he would have been with them.

Then a Dutch lorry driver dozed off at the wheel and was killed as he ploughed into Fairport Convention's Hertfordshire base, stopping inches short of the sleeping Swarb. "I'd just bought a new brass double bed, but it didn't fit by the window where the old one used to be," says Swarbrick. "Otherwise, I'd have been dead, too."

Lots of life-threatening damage to health followed, caused by a fondness for cigarettes, drink and marijuana. Years of playing with ruinously loud amplification left him 40 per cent deaf. In 1999 came an untimely end. The Daily Telegraph, Swarbrick's paper of choice ("I'm not a Tory but have always had a soft spot for its gung-ho attitude"), carried the most flattering of items. Unfortunately, it was an obituary, based on erroneous information that he had died in his home city, Coventry.

"Not the first time I've died in Coventry," is the wonderful one-liner people remember. But the gag came later; at the time, he was understandably cross. The press camped outside his home and the hospital, where he was actually recovering from a brutal bout of emphysema that had nearly but not quite killed him.

In time, he became philosophical about this latest reminder of mortality. "I just thought, 'Well, if you aren't going to see the funny side, what are you going to do as an alternative?' After all, I'd enjoyed the text of the obit - it was very complimentary. And it had answered a question I'd often asked myself: whether any paper would bother when I died."

Four years later, though mentally as alert as ever and still playing with something approaching the elegance and invention he achieved at the height of his powers, Swarbrick can get about only with a wheelchair.

For Fairport's annual festival on a civil war battle site in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy last weekend, Swarbrick's wife, Jill, packed him into the car and got him there in time to play on stage and attend a party to launch Swarb!

Now 62, Swarbrick has one son, two daughters - "late 20s to 30s; exact ages known only to them and their various mothers" - and two grandchildren. Various mothers? How often did he marry? "Let's just say if I hadn't wed as often as Henry VIII, I might be better off."

Health, of course, is his preoccupying concern. After successive tracheotomies, he will probably never sing again. But he is hoping soon to join the waiting list for a lung transplant. Surgery might be only months away. "I might be back on the road, playing every gig imaginable just like I was 50, or 40 or even 30 again. I'd be out there doing it all over again."

Well, not quite all. He has vowed to learn from his mistakes. Much admired as Fairport were, records sales were generally disappointing. Swarbrick nevertheless earned well at times, though he never put anything aside. "I did often wonder if I should, but would just say, 'Sod it, let's have another drink.' "

In the end, he had to rely heavily on friends and the Musicians Benevolent Fund to ease the financial impact of severe illness.

It remains to be seen whether he will ever be fit enough to recreate his earlier glories as a travelling musician.

********* ********** ********** And, of course, he did.

A few years later, in 2007, I was at Cropredy when Swarbrick joined other original Fairport band members of Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, with Chris While replacing Sandy Denny, to bewitch the festival crowd with a live reproduction of their sensational and enduring 1969 album Liege and Lief. It ranks among the finest concerts I have attended.

I will close this report with a lovely little anecdote told to me by Martin Carthy on the occasion of his, Carthy's, 60th birthday. He was working on an arrangement that did not feel quite right. Swab reassured him: "You can do anything you want with music, It won't mind." For what Swarb did with music, we shall forever be grateful.

Comments

Spence

To paraphrase the Great Hutch, an obit published too early is not wrong, it's just a breach of God's embargo.
What a great man. Will the Tel dig out the same obit?

Colin

Yes, I remember him* saying that, about someone else on whom the DT ran a premature obituary. I have seen the legitimate Swarb obit. It quotes from the original and draws on my interview from 2003 (see above) but broadly said the right things.

* Hutch, for readers with no knowledge of the Telegraph, was a scholarly, wise, charming and exceptionally witty deputy editor.

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