Much has been written and is still to be written about Dave Swarbrick. He was a giant figure making an impact from his first appearances as a teenager through to very recent times. His influence on Folk Rock was huge, but his most enduring musical relationship was his partnership with Martin Carthy. His musical story is well documented including features in previous issues of The Living Tradition.
In this tribute to Dave we explore the more personal aspects of him, concentrating more on the latter part of his life. We do this largely through an interview with Duncan Wood, a fiddler inspired by Dave many years ago and someone who got to know him at a personal level in recent years. Dave was very aware that he had had a second chance at life following on from his lung transplant and premature obituary. Whilst I was writing this I heard a new song written by Tom Clelland called The Next Time. In many respects, Dave had his ‘next time’ and like anything he did in his life, he embraced his second chance full on.
First a brief explanation from Duncan Wood about how much Swarb had influenced his own life and music. “Dave came into my life at a very vulnerable time. I was 15, my father had just died and somebody gave me a Full House LP. It had an extraordinary impact on me and it was at that point that I decided to learn to play the fiddle - always with Dave hovering over me in the background. He had this extraordinary influence because of his personality - it was infectious. You couldn’t help but be drawn into his world. And so he remained with me throughout my life and, ironically, towards the end of his life he and I became very good friends. And it was at this point that I discovered the human side of him. You know how you form an opinion of someone because of what you see superficially, on stage or from a recording or whatever, but it wasn't until I got to know Dave, spending hours in the car with him talking about things other than music - his family, his background, his mother, and much more - that I really discovered the man that was Dave Swarbrick.”
“There were other sides to Dave Swarbrick. There was the musical extrovert, the inimitable fiddle and mandolin player and singer too, and the creator of the most amazing songs and music. When you think of albums like “Babbacombe” Lee - the energy and the creativity which went into the making of that was quite extraordinary. But on the other side, I suppose he was a bit of a Marmite character - you either liked him or you didn’t. His energy could be exhausting, and he was infinitely sensitive and touchy, but affectionate, very very affectionate. He loved his dogs and adored his wife - who saved his life and who made huge sacrifices for him. When he met Jill, she changed him; brought him down to earth and stabilised him. He really appreciated that and it showed in just how well they got on together.”
“A lot of people have set out to imitate Dave Swarbrick but his style is inimitable. Other players are born with gifts but have to work at it. Not so with Dave. You got the feeling that it was as natural to him as breathing. Of all the fiddlers I have encountered over the years, he stands out as the one true fiddler. He could make an instrument do whatever he wanted.”
“He was an extraordinary guy – and I think he took his music for granted. I’d say to him: ‘Dave, that bit in Crazy Man Michael, or on Matty Groves - what were you doing?’ And he said, ‘I don't know. I don't know!’ And he genuinely didn't know, it just came from somewhere but he couldn't explain or describe where. His gift was really God given.”
The transplant had a huge impact on Dave. “He told me that when he woke up from that he couldn’t believe it. He opened his eyes and clasped his chest and thanked God. It certainly gave him a new lease of life and from that point on he took nothing for granted. Nothing! And he kept saying to me when we were in the car on these solitary drives, ‘You know one’s got to be realistic’. I think the shelf life for one of these lung transplants is about seven years and he got 14 years out of his. And why? Because of his positive attitude and because he never took anything for granted. It spurred him on - he kept on gigging, writing, and he just went for it right up to the very last. Tremendous.”
“Dave was generous to a fault but he wasn’t unselfish. Once he got his teeth into something then it became all about him and that which he was getting his teeth into, but if he was involving anyone else, he always had time to help you. He was modest too (in spite of his posturing on stage with Fairport).”
“There was another side to him. He was a very serious individual and always had an abiding interest in antiques. He had a collection of rugs, tapestries and early oak furniture which he was somewhat of an expert on. He took an interest in me as a picture dealer and what made me tick. He became fascinated with English watercolourists – people like Samuel Prout, Peter De Wint and David Cox - and amassed a collection by these artists. Luckily he did this at a time when the market for watercolours had slumped a bit, so he was able to acquire them cheaply. He'd buy a lot on eBay, but it wasn't random buying, he was judicious and clever and he was able to describe something in terms that you hadn't thought about. He had a knack, real insight and an intelligent approach to everything. He was a really clever guy.”
“He was also a funny guy. If he hadn't had a career as a musician he would have made an amazing stand-up comic. He was always relaxed and unguarded - that's the secret about him. Everything he did was done in a very unselfconscious way. You never knew what he was going to come up with next, but the humour just poured from him. And what a fantastic storyteller he was on stage - an absolutely brilliant raconteur.”
Part of Dave’s musical legacy will be a collection of tunes composed recently and published under the title of Swarbtricks. The floodgates to that period of composing started out with a couple of ‘thank you’ tunes composed by Dave followed by a chance remark from Duncan. “Dave came up to Edinburgh and we gave a concert at the Edinburgh Folk Club. Just before he came up, he sent me a tune, a jig in A major entitled Duncan The Dealer, a great tune but very tricky, not an easy tune to play. He had a great time up here and when he went back home, he sent me an air that he had written called Farewell To Edinburgh and then he sent me another tune relating to Edinburgh. And I just suggested out of the blue, ‘Where are these tunes coming from? There is an album in here.’ He said, ‘I'm not up to doing that, I’m not capable.’ And I said, ‘Well I’ll do it!’ And he just jumped at that idea. Suddenly I was getting tunes over the net at the rate of about three, four or five a day. He was sitting in his bed all day long reeling out those amazing tunes. Jill said he wasn't getting any sleep - he was like a man possessed.”
“As a mark of his generosity, he allowed me to adapt the tunes as there were some parts that were almost impossible to play. He wasn't precious or constraining, rather suggested that I took the project and do with it what I could. We made a CD which we called Swarbricks, with the tunes played by myself along with Cathal McConnell, Martin MacDonald, Gavin Sutherland and Maureen Hunter. When I sent him the finished CD he was completely bowled over by it. I felt at the time, and still do to this day, honoured that I was given the opportunity to do that.”
“More recently we were halfway through recording Swarbtricks Two. Dave wasn't so sure about this idea initially, but it occurred to me that it would be a better idea to distribute the tunes amongst people that he knew, people who have been inspired by him or influenced by him - good players, because the tunes are demanding. So I put the project on hold. So yes there is a body of music that I have custody of and I want to use that in a way that honours him and augments his legacy.”
Dave was less concerned about physical objects than people. “He wasn’t a rich guy, I daresay that he could have been, but although money was important to him, he liked to use it. So he spent a lot on antiques, instruments, fripperies. That’s just what he did. More recently he was desperate to pay his mortgage off. I don’t think there was much left to it but I suggested to him that he sell some of his Fairport memorabilia to raise a bit of cash, even just signed LPs or CDs or anything that he could add a signature to - a plectrum or whatever. And he thought that was a great idea and, like anything else, he just went headfirst into it. He ended up selling art books that he owned - ‘this book owned by Dave Swarbrick, History of English Art’. He’d just sell anything and he raised quite a lot of money. He sold his mandolin - which he had got from Martin Carthy as a gift years ago, I think in 1966. Carthy had bought this old Gibson mandolin in a junk shop and gave it to him. He had this through his entire career with Carthy with Fairport, Whippersnapper, right up to the very end, and it was all battered and scratched and bruised. He offered it to me, but I said that I couldn’t take it from him. I suggested he put it on eBay if he was so desperate to get rid of it, because he had given up playing the mandolin by that time. So we put it on eBay. Intrinsically it was worth perhaps 500 quid in a second-hand instrument shop, but I think he got about £3,800 from a fan in Newcastle or somewhere. And good luck for him, because he’s got a piece of history.”
What about any musical wishes – what will his legacy be? “He wished that I would complete the Swarbtricks Two project. That’s something that I feel duty bound to do however I end up doing it. But legacy? I think he left enough. You just need to look at his catalogue of recordings - a staggering amount with The Campbells, Carthy, Fairport, Whippersnapper, Lazarus and with Alastair Hulett – he’s left a fantastic legacy. I think towards the end maybe he felt a wee bit burnt out by it all, so recording and making music wasn’t the overwhelming priority that it had been in the earlier part of his career. He still did gigs with Carthy though, and that was a joy right up until the very end.”
“He suggested to Jill that there would be a last bash, but I don’t know if the Royal Albert Hall, which has been mentioned, would be a bit too ambitious - maybe Birmingham or somewhere. He wasn’t entirely without beliefs (there was a side to him that was open-minded enough to entertain the idea that there was life after death as it were) but he didn’t want a fuss and he didn’t want a funeral. His instructions, jokingly, were that the Council should just come along and throw him into a lorry and dispose of him as they thought fit. Those instructions were not carried out, but he didn’t have a funeral or a service, he just wanted it very simple. At the end of the day, all those possessions that we were speaking about, to him they counted as nothing. He was finished with life and that was it. He was ready to give it all up. He was prepared. It’d been on the cards and he was well aware of that. He would never take a minute of the extra time he had for granted. He was mindful of the fact that he could relapse at any minute and be gone in the blink of an eye. But, as for a tribute, we’ll do something - we have to.”
Married several times, Dave found true love with the artist Jill Banks, who cared for him through his periods of poor health and who survives him, along with three children, Emily, Alexander and Isobel, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
by Pete Heywood and Duncan Wood