Folk musician, singer and songwriter who was a member of Fairport Convention
Friday 3 June 2016
The folk music fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who has died aged 75, was a formidable and intuitive musician who first made his mark with the Ian Campbell Folk Group in the early 1960s. With the folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy, Swarbrick formed the best-known folk duo of the 1960s, and as a member of Fairport Convention, he directed the band through its early folk-rock period, and emerged as a songwriter of distinction. Various other musical collaborations followed, but the duo with Carthy endured.
Swarbrick was born in New Malden, Surrey, to Mabel (nee Salkeld) and Frederick Swarbrick, but the family soon moved to Yorkshire, where he first learned to play the violin, and then to Birmingham. At 15, he became an apprentice printer and, with the fiddle confined to the attic, he played the guitar in a skiffle group, which won a competition. The prize was to meet the local folk musicians Beryl and Roger Marriott. Beryl was an accomplished pianist who had made recordings and radio broadcasts, and was playing nationally for folk dances. She told him that guitarists would soon be two a penny, but fiddlers would be hard to find.
Before long, Swarbrick, universally known as Swarb, was playing the fiddle in Beryl’s English folk dance band and they also paired up in the Emerald Isle Ceilidh Band, which introduced him to Birmingham’s Irish musicians. Swarbrick also played alongside Beryl’s close friend, the Scottish fiddle player Kate Graham and, within a short time, he was absorbing English, Irish and Scottish tunes and styles.
Swarbrick followed on from Graham as fiddle player for the Radio Ballads, the groundbreaking radio documentaries produced by Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. He played on the coalmining programme The Big Hewer (1961) and The Fight Game (1963), about boxing.
The first meeting with the Ian Campbell Folk Group came earlier, in 1959, when he shared a railway carriage with the group on the way to a London concert. After a music session on the train, Swarbrick’s ability to pick up and play a tune came to the fore when he went on stage with the Campbells. He soon joined the group, performing at their Birmingham folk club, at concerts, on television and on several albums. Swarbrick’s presence marked out the Campbells from the other guitar-driven folk groups of the period. “We became the group with the fiddler,” Ian Campbell later wrote.
Through the 1960s, Swarbrick accompanied the singer and folklorist AL Lloyd on albums for the Topic label, including Lloyd’s selection of erotic songs, The Bird in the Bush (1966), and an LP of whaling songs, Leviathan! (1967). The two men had an instant rapport, with Swarbrick’s fiddle weaving in and around Lloyd’s vocals.
In 1965, Swarbrick quit the Campbells’ group and headed off to Denmark to get married. Turned back by immigration because he didn’t have a work permit, he returned to the friend who had seen him off on the ferry – Carthy – who invited Dave to join him on a folk club tour for half of the fees. The duo became permanent, and they took the folk scene by storm – Carthy’s singing and the often improvised interplay between his guitar and Swarbrick’s fiddle were heard on such traditional songs as Byker Hill, Jack Orion, Sovay and Bonny Black Hare. For contractual reasons, Swarbrick was given second billing on Carthy’s first three solo albums, but they shared the credits on the next album, But Two Came By (1968). The emphasis on songs on these albums did not accurately represent the duo live, because instrumentals were an integral part of the Carthy-Swarbrick performances.
Swarbrick’s first solo album, Rags, Reels and Airs, came in 1967, produced by Joe Boyd, with accompaniment from Carthy and the guitarist Diz Disley. Two years later, when the rock band Fairport Convention changed musical direction to embrace English folk music, their producer, Boyd, invited Swarbrick to play on their third album, Unhalfbricking (1969). He played electric fiddle on four tracks, most memorably for Sandy Denny’s singing of A Sailor’s Life. But it was playing alongside Richard Thompson that captivated Swarbrick, and by August he and the band were rehearsing the epic folk-rock album Liege & Lief.
Swarbrick made the fiddle a lead instrument alongside Thompson’s guitar, and immediately the two men were writing songs together. Swarbrick provided the tune for Crazy Man Michael, and the partnership resulted in classic Fairport songs – Walk Awhile, Sloth and Now Be Thankful. But when Denny, Thompson and Ashley Hutchings left the band, Dave found himself lead singer, main instrumentalist and songwriter. The influence of Lloyd and Carthy can be seen in the traditional songs that Dave brought to the band, while his early days playing with Marriott supplied many of the tunes.
Not quite sure whether they were a rock band or a folk group, Fairport went through some uncertain periods in the 1970s, and from 1976, Swarbrick released a series of solo albums, with accompaniment from musical colleagues.
Loud amplification having seriously impaired his hearing, Swarbrick left Fairport in 1981 and moved to Aberdeenshire. He performed in concerts billed as Dave Swarbrick and Friends, and in 1983, moved to Northamptonshire, and formed a new acoustic folk band, Whippersnapper, with three multi-instrumentalists. By this time, Fairport had established their annual festival in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy, and Swarbrick became a regular guest, performing with the band and others.
Swarbrick left Whippersnapper in 1989, by which time he had been reunited, part-time, with Carthy. Their first reunion album together was Life and Limb, a live recording that included reworkings of some of their most memorable songs together, including Byker Hill.
By the mid-90s, Swarbrick’s health was failing – the result of years of smoking – and he emigrated to Australia. He continued performing, most notably in a duo with the Scottish singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett. He returned to the UK in 1997, but as he was unable to perform regularly, his financial position was precarious.
In 1999, a national newspaper printed an obituary piece about Swarbrick when he was still lying, ill but alive, in a Coventry hospital. “It wasn’t the first time I’d died in Coventry,” he joked. Its publication galvanised support for him, and SwarbAid was launched. At occasional concert appearances, Swarbrick appeared on stage with an oxygen cylinder to offset the effects of emphysema.
A double lung transplant in 2004 transformed his life and he continued to perform with Carthy, Hulett, and his new band – Dave Swarbrick’s Lazarus. In later years, the fiddler received many awards, including the gold badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and lifetime achievement and best duo at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
His most recent solo recording was raison d’etre (2010), which nevertheless featured a range of former musical collaborators.
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.
• David Cyril Eric Swarbrick, folk musician, songwriter and singer, born 5 April 1941; died 3 June 2016