Dave Swarbrick tells Tim Hughes reports of his death were just (a little) exaggerated

News that the great Dave Swarbrick had died came as a massive shock to fans of the folk-rock fiddle player. It also came as a bit of a surprise to Dave.

The former member of Fairport Convention — one of the finest and fastest fiddlers in the world — read his own obituary while recovering from a chest infection in hospital in Coventry. “It’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry,” he joked afterwards.

Fifteen years on, and ‘Swarb’ is not only still alive, he is gigging as hard as ever while passionately championing the next generation of folk musicians.

“The fiddle is the greatest instrument in the world,” he says grandly. “I played guitar for a while, but I was never going to be a good guitar player — only adequate. But the fiddle allows for lots of styles — and is closest to the voice. And if you buy one good fiddle you can play it ‘til you die.

“I’m always amazed to listen to my Fairport stuff,” he adds mischievously. “It’s so fast. What was I on?”

Blunt, funny and charming, Swarb, 73, is among the most engaging folk musicians of his generation. Yes, he croaks a little, but he shows no sign of fading away. The Telegraph can file away that obit for a long time yet.

“That obit took my breath away,” he laughs. “Though that doesn’t take a lot. I was considerably ill and felt I didn’t have that much longer to go, so they weren’t that wrong.

“I never got half as much attention playing as by dying,” he goes on. “It was quite funny. There have been a few moments when I wondered whether I’d even get an obit.

“Everyone wonders that if they are slightly famous what it’ll say, as there have been a few criminal things. But it was very complimentary. I thought it was great and was not at all fazed.

“I enjoyed it. In fact, I photocopied the obits, took them to gigs, signed them “RIP Dave Swarbrick” and sold them for £1. After all, where else are you going to get a signed obituary?

“I had to stop, though, when The Telegraph got in touch and told me I couldn’t do it as they had the copyright!”

Ten years ago and following two SwarbAid charity concerts by Fairport’s Dave Pegg he received a double lung transplant, and is fighting fit. “I spent five years in hospital, on and off. I’ve also had a tracheotomy but that doesn’t affect my playing or my travelling.”

Swarb has had a long career, by anyone’s standards, and his work has influenced many of those who have followed.

Indeed, it would be quicker to say who Swarb hasn’t played alongside. His 10-year stint with Fairport Convention, from 1969, is regarded by many as their golden era — and saw them pioneer the genre of folk-rock with their seminal album Liege and Lief.

Swarb began his performing life before that as a guitarist with Beryl Marriot’s Ceilidh Band. She is credited with persuading him to put aside his guitar and return to the fiddle, which he had learned some years before.

He went on to perform with the Ian Campbell Folk Group and fiddled for A.L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl and MacColl’s wife Peggy Seeger — who is still writing music from her home in Iffley.

With MacColl and Seeger, he contributed to The Radio Ballads — recounting previously untold stories about Britain’s fishermen, roadbuilders, miners, boxers and travellers to music. His career post-Fairport has been even more colourful, including a duet with fellow Fairporter Simon Nicol, and forming a quartet, Whippersnapper, with Martin Jenkins, Chris Leslie and Kevin Dempsey. He moved to Australia to work with singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett. He went on to fiddle for Steve Ashley, John Kirkpatrick, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy (again), Australia’s Pete Hawkes and Canadian reggae artist Jason Wilson.

He has also performed with ex-Fairporter Maartin Allcock and Kevin Dempsey — calling themselves, with typically black humour, Swarb’s Lazarus.

But it is his work with up-and-coming artists which interests him most. On Saturday, he appears with two acclaimed young folk bands as part of his Evening with Swarb at Wallingford’s Corn Exchange. Swarb will play tunes, and share insights and anecdotes, with support from engaging, harmonic girl band Said the Maiden, and the Sam Kelly Trio.

The night, part of an 18-date tour, is organised by the Folkstock Arts Foundation, which promotes new acoustic talent and of which Swarb is a patron.

“I wanted to look at the current generat-ion of folk musicians,” he says. “There’s a new generation now. It’s a parallel universe and now I’m 73 I don’t get to meet them. But it’s great to be able to hear them. It’s a two-way street though. I’m going to be giving them tips, and they’ll be giving me something too, as some are fantastic.”

Swarb remains a private man not given to showing off or trading showbizz anecdotes. He admits to not even keeping in touch his old friends — even the Fairporters. “I never see them,” he says flatly. “But I don’t look back much. Fairport was great fun and they were lovely people, but it was over 30 years ago. I am still associated with Fairport, but I did have a bloomin’ career before that.

“It was fun though. I was known as that ‘wee fiddler’ and had marriage proposals from women over 50. Being in Fairport was a lovely thing but it wasn’t the first or last thing I did.”

So what is he most proud of? “I am happy with the stuff I did with Martin Carthy and Ian Campbell, and playing with the wonderful Beryl Marriott. I’m also proud of Whippersnapper and the stuff I’m doing now with Jason Wilson in Canada. There’s lots of stuff to pick from. But there are certain moments with Fairport that I’ll always remember too. They were wonderful times.

“Probably my proudest thing was launching folk-rock, which was an absolutely fabulous contribution.”

He pauses, thoughtfully, before adding: “I can’t pick the best time... but I can think of a few bad ones!”

Dave Swarbrick
Corn Exchange, Wallingford
Tickets £12 from cornexchange.org.uk