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Dave Swarbrick, The Goose Is Out, DHFC, East Dulwich, April 23rd 2010

April 24, 2010

Swarb's 'obituary'

Dave Swarbrick is without doubt England’s finest folk fiddler and trivia fans should know what he has in common with Alfred Nobel, Mark Twain and Bob Hope – having an obituary published while very much still alive. The offending obit was published in the Daily Telegraph back in 1999. Colin Randall of the Telegraph elaborated: ‘He was, at the time, lying in his bed in hospital in Coventry. Initially rather upset, he quickly saw the amusing side, was grateful for the glowing words about him and has been known to hand out copies. He even came up with the great one-liner: “Not the first time I’ve died in Coventry…”’ Swarb has suffered ill-health over the years, with emphysema brought on by chain-smoking (even while playing the fiddle), two tracheotomies and a double lung transplant six years ago. Fortunately, he’s well on the mend and is touring frequently these days – solo, as a duo with Martin Carthy and occasionally with a band, the splendidly named Swarb’s Lazarus.

This evening’s gig at The Goose Is Out at Dulwich Hamlet FC was a Folk Against Fascism event for St George’s Day and I was sporting my FAF t-shirt. Go and get the FAF double CD – it’s excellent and only a tenner. Anything to piss off a fascist….

Swarb kicked off the first of two sets with a wedding march from Unst, the farthest of the Shetland Isles. He commented that he once stayed at a hotel on the island – the most northerly hotel in Britain – and it was crap. The Baltasound Hotel should be ashamed… Next was an old tune written for the Golden Cross pub near Lewes in Sussex, which was, according to folklore, a highwayman’s inn. It’s still there if you fancy a nice pint of Harvey’s.

We were then treated to a series of tunes including Carpenter’s Morris and Mrs Savage’s Whim, old triple hornpipes in 3/2 time – not easy to tap your toe to. One great aspect of a Swarb gig is his willingness to explain the tunes and give their histories. It’s probably the case that he knows more than anyone about many of these obscure tunes, but he acknowledges the importance of ‘the web’ in allowing access to many ancient tunes hitherto ‘lost’ in the bowels of the British Library.

He followed that with two melodies from old Northumbrian piper Billy Pigg, The Gipsy’s Lullaby and Carrick, and closed the set with a lively threesome, Buttock Beef, Rising Sun and Northern Frisk – the last is also known as The Merry Conclusion or Mr Kynaston’s Famous Dance, as recorded by fine duo Belshazzar’s Feast.

Astral, Mr P, the Queen of Herts and I then took the opportunity to recharge our glasses before Swarb’s second set, which started with a lively trio of tunes, The Long Jig, The Running Footman’s Jig and The Brown Joak, the last being a bawdy reference to the female genitalia. However, I’m not convinced by Swarb’s oft-told tale that this is the origin of our word ‘joke’. Surely both come from the Latin jocus or iocus, meaning ‘sport’ or ‘amusement’, but perhaps I’m being pedantic – popular etymologies often tell more about the world than true ones…

Swarb then digressed into the tale of the 18-year-old Edward Bunting transcribing harp songs in the 1790s, following it with three of those tunes handed down in Bunting’s The Ancient Music Of Ireland, including popular air Blind Mary. He then digressed further with an anecdote about a Donegal hotelier who proudly boasted that the ‘famous fiddler Hughie McMenneman’ had stayed there. Indeed, Yehudi Menuhin had… which brought us to the lovely Lament On The Death Of His Second Wife, by Niel Gow, which Menuhin had played in front of an appreciative crowd of Scottish folkies at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh back in the day.

After a couple of lively encores, Swarb was cheered off the stage, but he was still urging us to buy his CDs. Indeed, he has something of a reputation when it comes to the folding stuff, but to be fair he’s probably only ever earned tuppence-ha’penny. What’s more, although he’s also forthright with his opinions, he always takes time to remember and pay tribute to those who have gone before, including the previously mentioned Billy Pigg and Edward Bunting, along with those he’s worked with, including Diz Disley, who died last month, and Beryl Marriott, whose Birmingham ceilidh band gave him his first big break as a teenager. One day far into the future, when Swarb’s obituary, alas, won’t be a mistake, I’m sure many fiddlers and other folk musicians will similarly pay handsome tribute to Swarb for all that he’s brought to the world of music. Here he is from 2007 in Adelaide:

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