The most enduring musical partnership of Martin Carthy’s career has undoubtably been with fiddler Dave Swarbrick. The pair met at the London’s Troubadour folk club in the early 1960s where Swarbrick’s intuitive approach to song accompaniment caught Carthy’s ear and he was asked to appear on Martin’s debut solo album. The pairing worked well but would doubtless have been short-lived had Swarbrick taken the time to arrange the necessary work permits when he was due to abscond to the continent for both personal and professional reasons. Upon his enforced return to England Swarb called Carthy and was immediately invited on the singers imminent ‘solo’ tour. Audiences and promoters happily accepted the duo (and in many cases, happily came up with the additional fee requested) and a long-standing professional partnership was born.
Performing “Byker Hill” in 1968
For the next four years the duo toured and recorded relentlessly and established a reputation as one of the most exciting and accomplished acts on the UK folk scene. At a time when the very notion of accompaniment of English folk songs was the subject of intense debate, the duo’s innovative and often daring arrangements of mostly traditional material helped establish the template for instrumental accompaniment of English folk songs.
In 1969 Swarbrick accepted an offer to join Fairport Convention (Carthy was also asked, but declined) and the duo went their separate ways. During the next two decades they would occasionally perform together both on stage and in the recording studio but a full-blown reunion never seemed likely until Swarb appeared as a guest on Carthy’s 1988 album “Right Of Passage”. Shortly after this release the pair announced plans for their “First Farewell Tour”, apparently inspired by the recent farewell tour by The Spinners (a convoluted story which was later revealed to have been a Carthy fabrication). Further concerts and tours followed over the next few years (“Second Farewell Tour”, “Farewell to the World” and so on) and were accompanied by the release of two brand new albums. The repertoire for these tours and recordings mixed (occasionally radical) re-workings of 1960s favourites with new material, but the focus remained largely on English traditional songs and tunes.
Performing “Sovay” for Yorkshire TV in 1989
In 1993 Swarbrick relocated to the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales, Australia and the partnership with Carthy was again curtailed. On his return to the UK three years later Swarbrick was dogged with health problems caused by years of heavy smoking and in April 1999 the Daily Telegraph published his obituary. It was a glowing appraisal of his career marred only by one minor detail – Swarb wasn’t actually dead! The music press and Swarb himself made much of the Telegraph’s gaff, with Swarb famously quipping “it’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry”, but the truth was that his health was still a major concern to the degree that he was unable to work on a regular basis for a number of years.
During this period the folk scene, including Martin Carthy and various former colleagues, pulled together to arrange a number of fund-raising concerts and events and as his health began to improve the Carthy & Swarbrick duo was resurrected. Swarb underwent a successful double lung transplant in 2004 and two years later was well enough to undertake a lengthy tour to promote “Straws In The Wind”, the latest Carthy & Swarbrick album. The success of the album and tour led to them winning the Best Duo award at the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards
Carthy and Swarbrick continued to perform together at festivals and on their annual September UK tours up until Swarb’s death in June 2016.
Performing “When I Was A Little Boy” live in 2009