The demise of this great traditional fiddler was not unexpected, after a long history of emphysema and a double lung transplant, but still sad.
I saw Swarb twice – firstly in my first month at Cambridge in 1970 with Fairport Convention, when the band was in a hurry to get home to their Guy Fawkes bonfire. Swarbrick would beg a cigarette from the audience, and play furious jigs and reels with it in his mouth as the ash burned longer and longer – it never seemed to fall off.
This clip gives an idea of that, though recorded the following year when the great guitarist Richard Thompson had left:
The second occasion I saw him was early in this millennium, with the legendary Martin Carthy (with whom he had played even before Fairport days). This time he was in a wheelchair on stage with an oxygen cylinder, owing to begging so many cigarettes from audience members over the years… but he was still a scorching player.
You may remember that Martin Carthy got a mention in Bob Dylan’s 1963 sleeve notes as an influence (actually Dylan plagiarised his Lord Franklin for Girl from the North Country, and also that Paul Simon
stole derived his version of Scarborough Fair from Carthy whilst in England.
Incidentally I first saw Carthy within a week of two of seeing Fairport, actually sitting on a crowded stage at his feet, the tapping of which kept hitting my knee, and I was blown away by this, my first experience of the power of English traditional music. I saw, and met him, a few times after that both playing solo and in the other great English folk-rock band, Steeleye Span. The second clip, though recorded more recently, is from their repertoire of that 1970 period: