Fresh lease of life for a music legend Dave Swarbrick
Keiron PimDave Swarbrick is a legend of English folk music and he is coming to King's Lynn next month. KEIRON PIM spoke to the fiddle player ahead of his gig with musical comrade Martin Carthy.Keiron Pim
For a while, folk violinist Dave Swarbrick made a bit of money selling signed copies of his Daily Telegraph obituary.
It wasn't a steady revenue stream - few things in his life have been - but it was certainly a bonus after a spell of ill-health that very nearly killed him; he was comatose when the newspaper prematurely ran the story but eventually he rallied.
"It was all very amusing really," he recalls. "It was a bit weird, but I was in hospital at the time so I was feeling a bit weird anyway.
"I had them printed off and sold them for a few quid. They must be the only signed obituaries in the world!
"Then the Telegraph tried to stop me doing it, but they saw the light. But then I thought I was pushing my luck too far, so I stopped."
Ten years on and after a double lung transplant and tracheotomy, Swarbrick, or "Swarb" as he is known to his many fans, is back on the road. Next month sees him and his old comrade Martin Carthy play at the Lynn Festival, where they promise to showcase the acoustic skills that have seen them enshrined in the history of British folk music.
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"I think we will be doing a selection of stuff we have been doing since Adam, plus a fair bit from the last album," he says, referring to their warmly received 2006 release, Straws in the Wind.
"We have some new instrumentals to play," he says, "but we never know exactly what we'll play until we get there and get on with it."
The fiddle and guitar duo have honed their style over the decades - "we get on great, we've had one minor argument in 50 years!" - and know each other so well that their styles perfectly complement each other. As Swarbrick puts it: "When he breathes in, I breathe out."
Swarbrick was born in London in April 1941, but when he was three months old his family moved to Yorkshire. At the age of six he began learning the fiddle, but two years later his family moved to Birmingham (he remains based in the Midlands, now living in Coventry).
At 15 he left school and became an apprentice printer, but spent much of the subsequent years touring and recording, working with traditional folk legends Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. In the early 1960s he joined the Ian Campbell Folk Group and soon left the printing industry for good.
"Then I met Martin Carthy at the Troubadour club," he remembers, "and he asked me to play on his first album."
Thus began an enduring partnership, one which has survived, despite Swarbrick's tumultuous life: illness, periods of poverty and a car crash have all taken their toll at different times.
Later in the 1960s came the other famous link-up of his career, with the pioneering folk-rock group Fairport Convention. His work on their famous album Liege and Lief is credited with shaping the direction of modern folk music in Britain.
Although he is not one for greatly dwelling on the past, a few days after the King's Lynn gig Swarbrick will be reuniting with other Fairport alumni such as Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings for a one-off concert at the Barbican in London.
"It's basically everyone who's still alive," he says. "It's exciting, it will be good to see everyone. It's quite a lot of work involved in learning the old stuff again and I wonder if I'm a bit tired of playing the old stuff, but people want to hear it."
When he says the "the old stuff" he means music he was playing back in the 1960s, rather than simply any music that is old. In fact, in recent years he has enjoyed exploring newly-discovered caches of music from further and further back in time, particularly between 1550 and 1750.
"When I was younger the English folk repertoire was very limited in terms of what collections were available compared with Scots and Irish. Most of it, it transpires, was in museums and libraries. Recently it has started to emerge. Universities have had seats to study folk music and now there's much more stuff in the English tradition. Now we know much more about the music that existed in the country and the courts than ever before."
The 1990s saw his health deteriorate and speaking to him on the telephone, it is clear that he is enormously grateful for his new lease of life.
"I had the lung transplant coming on for five years ago. Now I'm wishing I had had a knee transplant as well. I have young lungs and an old body! A strange combination," he laughs.
"It's just wonderful, I can't plead with people enough to leave their bits. It's just fantastic for people like me. I have had an extra five years that has been spent playing to people.
"I don't sing a lot now," he says, adding drily: "The tracheotomy stopped me singing, but I'm beginning to do it again in a limited way. I'm good at plain chant."
But his musical ability is otherwise intact and in fact Carthy said recently that his old friend is playing better than ever.
"I think there's stuff I played when I was younger that I couldn't play now and vice versa. It evens out.
"As you get older you play differently; maybe more passionately, more rhythmically. Of course you lose a bit of strength and you have to compensate in other ways. But you become a little bit more inventive and you find other ways of doing things. It's what I do and I love doing it."
Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick appear at King's Lynn Arts Centre on Wednesday July 15 at 8pm, as part of the King's Lynn Festival. Call the box office on 01553 764864 for tickets (priced �11.50 or concessions at �10.50).