The ’60 and ‘70s were peppered with innovators whose contributions to contemporary music purposely strayed from commercial visibility. To those that championed the popular sounds of the day, such quiet giants went largely unnoticed. But to more ardent fans that followed the stylistic path such work forged, their status quickly turned heroic.
One such pioneer was Dave Swarbrick, who passed away with little more than a nod from mainstream media on June 3 at age 75.
From the ‘60s onward, Swarbrick helped redefine British folk music, especially through electric innovations that triggered a genre unto itself, British folk-rock. He was a world class fiddler, one as comfortable with a somber ballad as he was with a dance tune. But it was his spirit that spoke volumes – a hearty, jovial attitude with gypsy-esque fervor that beamed through his playing and especially his singing.
Though introduced to British audiences at the dawn of the ‘6os with the Ian Campbell Folk Group, it was the music he created through two lasting alliances that established the breadth of Swarbrick’s remarkable musicality. The first was the duo he co-led with guitarist/singer Martin Carthy, one Britain’s most learned folk torchbearers. The second was the vanguard folk-rock band Fairport Convention which he helped pilot during the ‘70s through myriad personnel changes and a steadfast devotion to a sound that equally embraced folk tradition and electric mischief.
I was lucky enough to see Swarbrick in both settings. With Carthy, he was all wily grace, a strictly instrumental adornment to his partner’s folk troubadour profile. Given how the two stressed guitar/fiddle arrangements, Swarbrick’s playing was ripe with subtle colors that were often antique but never austere. Their performances possessed an air of timelessness, even when their repertoire would spill over into contemporary tunes.
With Fairport, Swarbrick was a lit fuse – a player that reveled in the electric possibilities that rock arrangements offered him, including the opportunity to open up as vocalist. Singing was never what Swarbrick was known for, but it was one of the true delights of his music. His final recordings with Fairport, the underrated and hard-to-find trio of The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977), Tippler’s Tales (1978) and the sleeper concert album Farewell Farewell (1979) were equal parts history lesson and pub crawl revelry led by distinctive, intuitive and immensely animated vocals.
Swarbrick battled emphysema for many years (perhaps not surprisingly, as most performance photos from the ‘70s revealed a cigarette dangling from his lips). While it never deteriorated to the degree the Daily Telegraph in London stated in 1999 by prematurely publishing his obituary, Swarbrick underwent a double lung transplant in 2004 but was still touring a decade later.
Recommended listening, outside of numerous Fairport and Swarbrick/Carthy albums, includes the 1981 solo album Smiddyburn, an instrumental session that reunited the full 1970 Fairport lineup (including Richard Thompson) and encapsulated British folk in all its traditionally rooted finery and electric finesse. Like Swarbrick himself, the music sailed through the decades with a love of heart, home and history.