Saturday, 4 June 2016

Death of a Giant

So, a giant has died this last week. No, not Ali, though he is giant enough, but a man of a similar vintage, rather smaller stature, much nimbler fingers, and of incomparably more significance to me. I mean, of course, folk fiddler supreme, Dave Swarbrick.

I'm not going to rehearse the facts and misfortunes of his life; read the obituaries if you don't already know them. As a member of that exclusive club who get to read their own obituary in the papers while still alive, I'm sure Dave had plenty of time to fact-check it himself thoroughly. I'm not even going to review the whole of his musical career. This being my blog, I'm going to describe what "Swarb" meant to me in those heady days of the late 60s and early 70s.

I only saw him perform live twice. First, in 1968/69 in the tiny folk club in an upstairs room of the Red Lion pub in Stevenage, paired with Martin Carthy. Second, in 1970/71, in a field near Little Hadham in Hertfordshire, where Fairport Convention had taken up residence in The Angel pub, and gave a free performance in their nascent Full House lineup, that is, without Sandy Denny and with Swarbrick more to the fore, vocally and as a songwriter. The difference between those two performances, separated by a couple of years at most, defined an era.

Folk clubs in those days were undergoing a transition, not least in what did and did not count as "folk music". The older members tended to be purists, regarding anything accompanied by an instrument or consisting of less than twenty verses, collected from some old boy in a pub and shouted with a finger in one ear as greasy kid stuff, only one step up from the much-despised rock'n'roll. They might smile indulgently on a ragtime-inflected guitar whizz like Diz Disley, but frowned intolerantly on the likes of Bert Jansch or John Martyn, precisely the sort of acts the younger members hoped and expected to hear. So one night I rocked up at the Red Lion to hear Swarbrick and Carthy, not really knowing what to expect.

Damascene moments are rare in life. When you're very young, they do seem to happen more often, and yet you hardly notice them at the time. This, you assume, is how life is meant to be. My life will now continue at this pitch, you think, until I cease to be, keeling over in a final ecstasy, still resonating like a violin when the last stroke of the bow in the final medley of jigs and reels is over, and purists and young 'uns both explode with wild applause. I became, instantly, overnight, a folkie. I bought the LPs Rags, Reels and Airs, Prince Heathen, and later the brilliant Selections sampler on the Pegasus label. The combination of Carthy's percussive, open-tuned guitar and stentorian voice with Swarbrick's fluid jig-playing and expressive violin colourings filled me with joy. They still do.

Meanwhile, I had also become a huge fan of the early Fairport Convention. What We Did On Our Holidays was rarely off my turntable.  I especially loved their gestures towards "pure" folk, tracks like "Nottamun Town" and "She Moves Through the Fair". Imagine my amazement on buying Unhalfbricking later that same year and finding that Dave Swarbrick was guesting on the album. Damascene moments again: it is impossible to exaggerate the impact in 1969 of hearing the only real folk track on the album, "A Sailor's Life", with that carefully building, throbbing, sobbing combination of Richard Thompson's guitar and Swarbrick's amplified violin, topped by Sandy Denny's incomparably soulful vocal, driven on by the relentless rhythm guitar of Simon Nicol and the bass and drums of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Lamble. I don't think it has ever been surpassed. I doubt it ever will be. It is simply perfect.

And yet... That very same year (1969 may have been the longest year ever) saw Swarbrick joining the band and the release of probably the most anticipated and most exciting record in the entire history of the world, at least as understood in my bedroom: Liege and Lief. Words fail me. All folk. All Thompson and Swarbrick. All Sandy Denny. It is universally acknowledged as an utterly brilliant, groundbreaking record; and yet I don't think it ever quite surpasses the peak of excitement achieved on that single precursor track, "A Sailor's Life". "Reynardine" and "Tam Lin" come close, and the medleys of jigs and reels are joyous, but we true aficionados who knew where Swarb was coming from (even if, ahem, from only months before – as I say, it was a very long year) and already owned Rags, Reels and Airs had heard all that before. No, I think there's something darkly sexy, other-worldly and spontaneous about "A Sailor's Life" which is missing from Liege and Lief. From that point on the co-ordinates of electric folk had been drawn, and it started to become as predictable as blues and, dare I say, just as boring in the wrong hands.

I did enjoy Steeleye Span's take on folk for a while – Martin Carthy's own moment in the electric sun, of course – but the last Fairport album I bought was Full House. I'd seen them play at the bottom of a hilly field that year, one of the first big-name bands I'd ever seen live, and certainly the first open-air gig I'd been to.  A friend's dad drove us over in his van and decided to stay; I'll never forget seeing his face when some stoned freak stumbled up the hill towards us and offered him a gigantic joint. But it was not the Great Experience I had imagined. In Sandy Denny's absence, something crucial had gone missing: Swarbrick was still the finest, most expressive fiddler, with a gift for fills and colouring that goes beyond the mere facility of jig-playing – his performance on the Full House track "Sloth" is rightly highly regarded – but he was never a singer to stand where the sublime Sandy Denny had once stood. Who is? And besides, I'd been listening to this really exciting band called Jethro Tull, and my tastes were changing again, but that's another story...

But, if you don't know it, give "A Sailor's Life" a listen, and prepare to be astounded as two peerless musicians improvise and invent a whole new genre right there. Dave Swarbrick will be missed, but Richard Thompson is still very much with us, of course. But I don't think I'd be alone in considering that single track as one of the very highest peaks of even his distinguished career. I'm not surprised Dave Swarbrick decided to stay on to see where the amazing journey went next.


Zouk Delors said...

Mike, there is a button on Dave Swarbrick's webpage which you can use to send messages (something which is specifically invited). You could send a link to this post by way of appreciation and tribute. Also there will be further details posted there after the weekend.

I never knew he'd played at the Red, though I wasn't as into the folk as you. Did you know Trevor Keeling runs a blues club there on Sunday nights these days?

Mike C. said...


Maybe I will, I'll have a look. Though I think he really is dead this time...

Easier to say who *didn't* play there -- the folk circuit was very democratic (if that's the word, maybe "poorly paid" is better) in those days, and the biggest names would be living out of the back of a van and playing any venue that would have them.

I knew Trevor ran a club, but didn't know it was there. If you go, give him my regards (hey, how did you get hold of my regards, anyway?), though I don't think he ever quite forgave me for an incident with a cigarette outside the Undercroft one Friday night long, long ago... Don't suppose anyone calls him "Kink" any more!


Zouk Delors said...

The Sunday blues night has a peripatetic history -- it was in the Royal Oak, Walkern Road in about 2001 when I first came across it and reacquainted myself with Trev* -- but seems to have settled at the Red for some years now. There's no entry charge there but he also puts on some pay gigs upstairs at the Marquis of Lorne. I'll certainly remember you to him next time I bump into him but it won't be in the Red as I'm denied entry to that establishment (in accordance with the principle of jurisprudence known to lawyers by the Ancient French, jour barde). I won't mention the ciggie.

*I'd completely forgotten the nickname -- but wasn't it "Kinks", anyway? I'll have to try calling him that next time to see if (and how) he responds.

Brendini said...

I saw Swarb and Carthy some years ago at the Hitchin Folk Club. Swarb was at the point where he couldn't stand up to perform and had to remain seated. Still a great night,though. He developed a little tic between pieces where he'd perform a trilling little run on the fiddle in order to check the tuning. As the evening progressed each performance was preceded by this tic to the general delight and amusement of the audience. Once Swarb became aware of what was happening he made a point of slowly checking the tuning with a grin on his face.
I happen to live next door to Trevor and I would love to know the origin of "Kinks".

Mike C. said...


Yes, that must have been sad to see -- I couldn't believe what had happened to him, physically, in his latter days (back then he was a little, impish guy with a permanent fag).

I can see I'm going to regret mentioning Trevor's old nickname... I have no idea how he came by it, though I do recall he was the only guy I ever knew who backcombed his hair, maybe some connection there? I'll probably regret mentioning that, too...


Zouk Delors said...

"Kinks" was short-form for "Kinky Keeling". I'm not sure there was any more to it than alliteration and a delight in the word "kinky" (which I think at that time was -- perhaps! -- fairly recent in the signification we're tempted to ascribe to it. His back was straight enough.) But why don't you pop next door and ask, Brendini?

Brendini said...

I have a photo of Jan and Trevor's wedding day. A more magnificent leonine mane you could not hope to see.

Mike C. said...


Enough about Mr. KK. Can't risk upsetting these Peaky Blinder underworld club-boss types.

Though if you do pop round for a cup of sugar, Brendini, ask him if he recalls doing a hilarious striptease in a hotel room in Wilderswil, Switzerland.


Brendini said...

OOOH! Thanks for the ammunition! I am grinning as I type.

Mike C. said...

Of course, he was only eleven, but ...

Now no more, can't risk legal action from his fancy lawyers, or a visit from the enforcers.


Dave Leeke said...

Not for the first time I seem to have come a little late . . . as for the wonderful recently departed Swarb, I saw him many times live. Only barely so at Cropredy a few years back as he had to use an oxygen mask to help him through - a great "Sloth" I recall. Still, this was not an unexpected death unlike many recently departed fellow travellers. When someone like him goes we remember only the best, thankfully.

He was a pretty good songwriter as well as instrumentalist and it is worth noting that most people's favourite FC songs at this time were Thompson/Swarbrick efforts. I will be forever envious, Mike, that you were old enough to have experienced the Little Hadham gig.

As for Mr K, the last lengthy conversation I had with him was about 3 years ago at Cambridge Folk Festival where he berated me & Mrs Dave for leaving early before the Mavericks came on. Well, he'd had a drink or two and it was raining and they are . . . let's just say not of the calibre of Mr S.

Nice post, Mike.

Mike C. said...


After all these years my memory is unreliable, but I *think* I was expecting to see Sandy Denny, which was disappointing. Easy to forget how, in those pre-internet days, insider knowledge about bands was restricted to the sad few who read Melody Maker from cover to cover. I doubt I even knew that Martin Lamble had been killed. Come to think of it, I don't even know now how we knew the gig was happening!

Less of the "old", sonny -- "mature and far-sighted" is more like it!