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.