Over 20 years ago, when I was still living in Lewiston, I had a regular music-making habit with my friend Alfred Lund, a deeply talented drummer/percussionist/drum maker/massage therapist and all around curious and compassionate human. One summer, we were slated to perform as a duo in the town of Hallowell, ME, and when we arrived at the town gazebo with our songs and gear, there was a tall, slender, beaming guy serenading some children and their parents with a guitar and with a song that went like this:
‘Jack and Jill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW!
The window, the window
the second story window
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW!’
This went on and on – with Old MacDonald’s Farm:
‘Old MacDonald had a farm
and on that farm he had a cow
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW….!’
with Jingle Bells:
‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
Jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
and THROW IT OUT THE WINDOW….!
with every beloved children’s song.
The kids (and many of the parents, too) squealed with delight every time the new refrain came around. I laughed just as hard as everyone else. This guy’s vibe was infectious, and so genuine!
‘Who is that?’ I asked Alfred.
He smiled and said, ‘That’s my friend Martin Swinger.’
And very soon, Martin was my friend, too. He beamed just as much off stage as on. When he looked you in the eyes and said, ‘It’s so good to meet you!’, you knew down to your toes that he really meant it.
Over the years, I was delighted to hear more and more wacky and beautiful songs from him – songs about everything from oysters to vacuum cleaner parts. Nothing was beyond his wit, his talent, and his love. It was all about love for him. He loved life so much that he wanted to write and sing about every single thing that delighted him, and then share that delight with others – not for his own sake, but for the sake of that insatiable curiosity and delight. Who is immune to such joy, especially when you’re hanging out with Martin Swinger?
When I was figuring out my own solo career (and my life, really) and considering attending my first NERFA conference over 10 years ago, I reached out to Martin – whose name at the time was the only one I recognized from the lengthy registrant list – and I asked him what to expect. He replied with many paragraphs of thoughtful advice that I followed to the letter – and, of course, his absolute delight that I was attending. ‘I can’t wait to see you there!’ he wrote. And when I saw him in Kerhonkson, NY some weeks later, he greeted me with the warmest hug and smile, knowing that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and alone. He pointed to the piano in the lobby, and said to me, ‘Go over there and wow everyone. Just be yourself. People will love you,’ he assured me. So I did. I sat at the piano whenever it was available, did what I do, and people were drawn in, and bonds were formed, connections made, and I found my way through. Throughout that weekend, whenever I noticed Martin walk by from my seat at the piano, he would always smile and wink.
I remember sitting next to him the year that he won the New England Songwriting Contest (a contest I would win the year after him). He listened very intently to every other performer, and had something so kind to say about everyone. He’d lean towards me with, ‘Oooh, what a great line!’ or ‘Wow, what a nice rhyme there’ or ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting THAT chord change!’ Everything, everyone, everywhere, was a delight to him. And whenever I was near enough to Martin to experience this joy, it also felt like I was the only one in the world he was sharing it with – his presence really was palpable, and such a beautiful example to follow.
I was so sad to learn of Martin’s sudden passing this past week. A little light in this wild world now extinguished, and now it is on the rest of us to carry it forward. My heart aches for his husband, for all of us songwriters and musicians of all ages who looked to him for the strength, wisdom, patience, and kindness that he never stopped offering so freely with all of his huge heart.