AS a member of folk supergroup Bellowhead, Sam Sweeney is known for his exuberant fiddle playing, but there will be an altogether more poignant feel to his show when he comes to The North Wall arts centre in Summertown on Tuesday.

The Unfinished Violin, centres on a fiddle Sweeney came across in violin maker Roger Claridge’s shop in Oxford, when he was 19.

It was made, but not assembled, by Richard S Howard of Leeds, in 1915. Claridge had come by it at auction, in pieces, in an old envelope, assembled it and put it on sale.

Sweeney bought it and used it for numerous albums and countless gigs, and in time he set about digging into its history.

He then uncovered the fateful tale of Richard Howard, a music hall performer called up in 1916 to the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment who fought and lost his life in the Battle of Messines in 1917.

Last summer, Sam visited the battlefield. “They had arranged a Richard Howard walk, and we visited loads of important sites connected with the Battle of Messines,” he says.

“There were about 100 people with us and we ended up at his grave. His granddaughter read a poem, I played the fiddle, and a bugle player played The Last Post.”

The Oxford Times:

The tune he played, from Howard’s regiment, was the beautifully mournful The Wellesley, which is also one of the tracks on his The Unfinished Violin album.

The Wellesley, with its swelling melodies and stately rhythm was the march Richard Howard himself would have heard as a recruit to the Duke of Wellington’s regiment.

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“Playing that over Richard Howard’s grave was incredibly emotional,” says Sam. “We were all just stood there, sobbing. He was unknown, no one knew anything about him, no one would ever have visited his grave, ever, and all of a sudden, there I was, playing his fiddle to him. Loads of people have now visited Richard’s grave and are regularly laying flowers there. It’s amazing to be a part of this instrument’s life.”

As well as Bellowhead, Sam has been a part of the acclaimed Full English project and records with Rob Harbron and Andy Cutting as Leveret.

  • Sam Sweeney - The Unfinished Violin
  • The North Wall, Oxford
  • Tuesday
  • thenorthwall.com