Musical palate cleanser, “with integrity and the occasional whiskey” edition

If you’re a fan of British folk-rock, as I am, this is a sad thing to hear.

Dave Swarbrick, a fiddler who electrified the British folk tradition as a member of the band Fairport Convention, died on Friday. He was 75.

His death was announced on his website. The announcement did not say where he died or specify the cause, but he had emphysema for many years.

Swarb was a heavy smoker and his health had been questionable for a long time, something that wasn’t exactly unknown.

A smoker since his teens, Mr. Swarbrick struggled with failing health in the 1990s. He underwent three tracheotomies, and his emphysema grew so severe that at one point he needed oxygen onstage to perform…

A double lung transplant in 2004 improved his condition.

He was a remarkable musician.  My first real appreciation  of his abilities came on Liege and Lief, the first Fairport Convention album in which he joined the group as a full member.  Listen to this take of “Matty Groves”, especially when things really kick off at the 4:30 mark.

And this clip is impossible to pass up.

Ah, the rare British hippie in the wild…

Finally, here’s a recent set with Richard Thompson (whom I really need to feature in a MPC).

And of course you can’t mention Swarbrick’s passing without bringing this up:

… in 1999 however, he joined a list of people, including Bob Hope, Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel, whose deaths have been announced prematurely – in Swarbrick’s case in a Daily Telegraph obituary.

The Telegraph, Swarbrick’s paper of choice (“I’m not a Tory but have always had a soft spot for its gung-ho attitude”), had received erroneous information that he had died in his home city of Coventry. When informed that the musician was still alive (though recovering in hospital from a bout of emphysema) the obituaries editor and his staff were said to be “distraught”. Luckily the piece made flattering reading, describing Swarbrick 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 Swarbrick 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.” His wife, Jill, said: “He read the obituary and didn’t quarrel with any of the spellings or the facts – apart from the obvious one.”

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

“In fact,” he told the Oxford Times in 2014, “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.”


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4 responses to “Musical palate cleanser, “with integrity and the occasional whiskey” edition

  1. Athens Dog

    Ok. I admit it. You stumped me on this one.


  2. Ed Kilgore

    Didn’t know you shared my affection for Fairport Convention, Senator. I’ll always identify Swarbrick with the epic “Sloth.” The fiddle-guitar interplay between Swarbrick and Richard Thompson on that one is one of the great glories of folk-rock music.


    • “Sloth” is fabulous.

      Another favorite collaboration of theirs is “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman”. Swarb is on mandolin and Thompson cranks out what may be his greatest guitar solo as a member of Fairport.


  3. sectionzalum

    that “Matty Groves” tune is awesome. heard it first time a couple years ago listening to WNCW online. thank the Lord for shazaam