Martin Swinger is seen at Johnson Hall in Gardiner in March 2003. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

Martin Swinger dedicated his life to music and songwriting, inspiring countless musicians throughout the country and entertaining captive audiences for decades. His unexpected passing on July 5 at age 66 devastated family, friends and fans, but they said his impact will continue to resonate throughout the state and beyond.

Martin Swinger Contributed photo

In Maine, Swinger was well-known for hosting and producing the cable TV show, “ALIVE! From Johnson Hall,” broadcast in Gardiner. The program lasted nine years and showcased numerous Maine musicians.

Martin’s music is described by those who knew him as personal, heartfelt and authentic.

“In the classical sense, you’d call him a folk singer,” said Michael Miclon, executive and artistic director of Johnson Hall, “but he was truly a singer-songwriter. His songs were quite beautiful. His style was very personal, and his personality seemed to shine through his music quite well to me. He was very accomplished in both playing and singing.”

“His music is so diverse,” said Ed DesJardins, who has known and performed with Swinger for several years, and also produced and engineered his last two albums. “It always reminded me of show tunes in a way. These weren’t simple folks songs; these songs were really big. They had a lot going on, much more in the way of a super high quality piece that would be written for a play or a show, rather than a hit you’d hear on the radio. He could write extremely tender, tear-jerker songs, but he could also be outrageous.”

Alfred Lund, a fellow musician who performed with Swinger for more than two decades, described his songs similarly.

“His songwriting was deeply descriptive,” said Lund, “often times showing compassion through descriptive and accessible imagery. He absolutely knew his craft, and chose to write songs that illustrated how much caring he brought into his own view of the world.”

An elementary school class is enthralled by the guitar playing and singing presentation by Martin Swinger on Feb. 17, 2005. Swinger died July 5 at age 66. Portland Press Herald file

Swinger grew up in Georgia and began singing in the first grade. He was already writing his own songs by the time he was a teenager. Inspired by a love of poetry and artists like Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson, he formed a band in high school. His love of performance led him to major in theater at Valdosta State College in Georgia and, in 1977, he helped found the iconic Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, which created original plays for all audiences that frequently featured his original songs.

His talents led him to begin performing on the East Coast, and he eventually won a Certificate of Merit for his song “Look Who’s Cryin’ Now” at the American Song Festival.

And in addition to inspiring, teaching and collaborating with countless Maine musicians, he and his husband, Brian Kaufman, were among the first couples in Maine to have a same-sex wedding.

Brian Kaufman, left, and Martin Swinger, right, sing “Stuck On You” from the musical “Whoop-Dee-Doo” to each other during their wedding Dec. 29, 2012, at Slates Restaurant in Hallowell. The ceremony was officiated by then-Hallowell Mayor Charlotte Warren, center. Swinger died July 5 at age 66. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Together, Swinger and Kaufman also worked on the creation of an educational board game called “Rainbow Quest!” which teaches lessons about LGBTQ milestones.

“It’s a game anyone can play, but it’s specifically designed to help people be more open about their sexuality,” said DesJardins. “It’s just a gentle, smart game, and I think it’s going to help a lot of people who are struggling. He was always working on the game, and that was really going to pay off for him.”

DesJardins produced Swinger’s final two albums: “Moon” and “Living Things.” He said Swinger was likely the most memorable musician he’s worked with as a collaborator, producer and engineer.

He describes “Moon” as an ethereal album, with spacious reverb and electric guitars and “Living Things” as a purely acoustic album, with mandolins, upright basses and acoustic guitars.

“The idea was to keep it grounded and real sounding,” DesJardins said of Swinger’s final album. “The subject of the album was nature, so it turned out to be an acoustic record.”

The album begins with the song “God Loves,” which suggests that God’s love is similar to that of the unconditional love that dogs provide.

“He’s slyly putting together the kind of love a dog gives you, where they’re just happy you’re alive and want to play,” said Lund. “It says something about his relationship with God, that there is something playful about his relationship with God. That’s my favorite song of his, bar none.”

Lund first met Martin about 25 years ago during an AIDS walk in Hallowell. At the time, he was working as a massage therapist and he and his wife volunteered massages for people after the walk.

“My impression then was that he was a real pied piper,” he said. “He had an infectious, positive attitude and brought a lot of love into everything he did. I’ve been a musician all my life and I was just struck by how positive, upbeat, enthusiastic and caring he was, and this was at an event that was trying to bring awareness to what was, at that point, a difficult issue.”

Swinger also taught songwriting to children, and Lund commended his ability for helping people foster their natural talents.

Martin Swinger sings songs written by Pittston Consolidated School students in 2002. Swinger did a week-long program teaching songwriting to the students and the songs were performed in an all-school assembly. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

“He was really excellent at helping people come up with their own lyrics, and then turning that into a song,” Lund said.

Miclon first met Swinger in the early 1990s at a New England vaudeville festival, and saw him perform with a group called “Zingo Zango Generic Jug Band.”

“They were hilarious,” he said, “but you could also tell that they were actually really great musicians. I was a performer there as well, and Martin’s personality on stage was just as lovely off stage.”

And while Miclon was not director of Johnson Hall at the time Swinger hosted his television series at the theater, he said the show undoubtedly left a lasting impact on the arts and musical scene in the state.

“It elevated the profile of Johnson Hall significantly, but it also showcased some incredible singers and bands from around the state and gave them a lot of exposure,” he said. “That’s part of our mission at Johnson Hall, to elevate artists.”

Before he took the job at Johnson Hall, Miclon recalled a show at which both he and Swinger were about to perform, and discussed the facility’s future potential.

“He wanted it to be a dance space, and wanted to figure out a way to make the seats retractable and have a stage that lowers into the floor with the push of a button,” he said. “He never thought you should be sitting still when listening to music, and that’s what he was afraid of — people building this beautiful hall but nobody can move.”

Miclon laughed and said he could remember thinking, “This is crazy, but it’s a great idea.”

Both Miclon and Lund said they are discussing hosting a tribute show in honor of Swinger later this year, however no firm plans have been finalized as of mid-July.

“He was such a dear person,” said Miclon. “He was very giving to other artists, too. He loved to give people other opportunities and did a lot of songwriting classes. He tried to nurture people that way. There are a lot of great musicians, singers and songwriters out there, but not many people like Martin who really gave themselves to what they were doing. That’s part of why this is leaving such a big hole, he was such a caring person and not everyone is like that.”

“Martin worked at Slates as a waiter, and he brought a spark to everything he did there,” said Lund. “And in Augusta he worked at Margaritas. He was an ‘old man’ to all the kids there, but he was the first one to jump up and sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ He was a spark, absolutely.”

DesJardins said working together with Swinger helped him grow as an artist.

“He certainly left a huge impact on me,” said DesJardins. “I’ve never been quite so sad about losing someone as I was about losing him. As a songwriter, producer and engineer, he always said that I helped him, that he couldn’t do it without me, but what he did for me is immeasurable. If I’m mixing an album now, I think about the decisions he made. If I’m writing a song, and I want to make it count, I’ll think about him and what he would’ve done. It helps me write a better song. I’m pretty sure he did that for a lot of people.”

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