Another Man Done Gone: Vin Garbutt (1947-2017)

Sad to hear of the untimely death of folk-singer Vin Garbutt on 6 June 2017 at just 69. It was reported that he had heart problems. I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that the only thing wrong with his heart was that it was too big. Having a couple of years’ head start, I began my interest in folk music a bit before him, so I missed the early part of his career. With the group, The Clevelanders (named after Vin’s beloved Cleveland Hills), I helped start Darlington’s first folk club back in 1963. We used to make trips down river to Stockton Folk Club, where we heard The Fettlers perform their own songs and those of Ron Angel and Graeme Miles. In due time, Vin Garbutt would join this band of Tees Valley song writers who put the area onto the folk map. He will also have heard Babs and Garth sing ‘The White Cockade’ there, before he joined the Fettlers himself. Our little group, a bit of a skiffle-cum-folk band, went our separate ways in 1964 and began our personal tours around the country in search of education and work.

I guess I would have heard of Vin Garbutt during occasional trips back home and visits to successor folk clubs – enough for me, when I ran the folk club at Louth in Lincolnshire in the 70s to book him as a guest. Needless to say, he brought the house down, but even 16-year old kids there already knew his name and his first LP. He was the same off stage as on: a mixture of mischief and seriousness, with a fund of stories and a skill at mindless, surreal humour. I remember remarking, by way of introduction, that we would have played in the same river as children (he lived in South Bank just beyond Middlesbrough), to which he replied that he wished we hadn’t made it so mucky down his way (or words to that effect – those who know the River Tees will appreciate the joke). I still have the signed copy of his LP from that visit, The Valley of Tees, and the four that followed in rapid succession: The Young Tin Whistle Pest, King Gooden, Eston California and Tossin’ a Wobbler.

By that time, I was back in Darlington to live, and saw him more than once at the club in Darlington Arts Centre. He became controversial in folk circles, for reasons that don’t reflect well on the tolerance of folkies. He was well known for songs on topical subjects, not least the Troubles in Ireland, and applauded for the way he handled such a difficult item in fraught times. He was a staunch Catholic and his song The Little Innocents tackled the subject of abortion from that point of view. He had a hard time getting work in British clubs after that, though he still sang it at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Vin always had his heart on his sleeve and you took him as the man he was, in the round, you couldn’t pick and choose the bits you liked and the bits you didn’t. I didn’t agree with his views always, but loved him for the way he was not afraid to speak out and risk upsetting people he was there to entertain.

So, for many years, I never met up with him again (on my travels once more), but still enjoyed what of his music I had, and was pleased last year to pick up his CD Synthetic Hues and renew old acquaintance. I am glad I have so many of his songs and tunes to remind me of what a great guy he was and remained. I have been pleased to see so many positive tributes on the internet. I have great memories of him and he is a link to more from those early days of the folk revival. RIP, Vin!

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Creating History

I am drawn to the view, by whomsoever expressed, that we make our own history, we are not victims of it, even when it appears so. This includes Karl Marx, who suggested that we do not make history in conditions of our own choosing. It therefore includes also Raya Dunayevskaya, in her rescue of humanism from the ravages of post-Marx Marxists. It also includes Cornelius Castoriadis and his view of History as Creation and The Imaginary Institution of Society, from a post-Marxist viewpoint. There are others with whose work I am not familiar enough to cite them.

You will note that this also relates to writers who were writing about political action and creativity, so that my view of history and my view of political action have tended to coincide. The one feeds into the other and has done for me for over 50 years. If I have a generally libertarian view of politics, it is matched by a libertarian view of history, while in both cases aware of the collective nature of human society (I am not an individualist). As human beings we are essentially creative, even when it looks different. This infuses my concept of ‘history from below’, which goes beyond the idea of studying history as if from the lower ranks of society, though it includes that. It comes out in my concept of radical family history, both as a way of understanding the world and as a practice for historians.

I am prompted to these thoughts having just read The Future of History, by John Lukacs, (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011). It is not that he directly addresses the issues in which I am interested, but the honest appreciation he makes of the limits of history, the limits of the surviving record, while pleading for all historians to fight for the profession (which includes so-called amateurs like myself) and for meaningful standards, including readability. There are elements of what he says with which I might disagree, but that in no ways is a criticism[1]. He is also a self-confessed ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’, while I see myself as ‘radical’ – but that makes his views all the more interesting, not least when I find myself often in full agreement. I hope he will not therefore mind if I describe the work as entertaining, by which I mean stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a work worth returning to and allowing his critique to work on one’s consciousness and inform one’s practice.

As a primarily family historian, I am all too aware of the limitations of the records from which I and my co-conspirators have to work. These become less and less adequate, the further one travels back in time. It is, to say the least, a challenge and not merely from a technical, genealogical point of view. It is an even bigger challenge for me to then suggest that this is a way of testing the theory that we make our own history in the sense described above. Just how does that actually work? How can we, as historians, demonstrate that the theory is more than an unproven hypothesis? When the thinkers I mention above talk about history as creation, what exactly do they have in mind? What kinds of verifiable records are there to prove the hypothesis? Or is it just abstract theorising? Sometimes when you read their work it seems like that, not least because of their selection of relevant illustrative events.

As a professed ‘radical family historian’, however, I am not positing an abstract theory: I am testing it to destruction. What sort of family history can I and others of my ilk write and what will it demonstrate? Some have written excellent histories of their own particular family lines and the reader can see how some of the characters shaped their immediate world, while being equally shaped by it (I have mentioned these in previous posts). The balance from one individual to another might vary considerably – some of us are passive and it is the passivity that helps shape our own history and, to some degree, that of the world around us (think of those who can’t be bothered to vote in elections, for example, or pour scorn on others who do try to bring about social change). I have suggested elsewhere that comparative, parallel family histories might offer insights on social change or specific facets of everyday life. My own aim is to use the history of those who took up and bore the name ‘Bashforth’ over three centuries, how they spread around the world, how their fates differed and can be compared, how they ‘created history’ and in what sense. What I can show (let alone prove) with that approach is as yet an open book, with lots of blank pages. One thing I am sure I will find is that ‘radical family history’ is a concept, not a methodology.

[1] I think he describes social history in terms that are too narrow and, while I concur with his view that some of the subjects that are studied and written about by academics in the field of cultural history may seem bizarre (pp 86-87), his list is rhetorically selective (and therefore unworthy) and fails to appreciate the way in which historians today are concerned with the history of ‘everyday life’.

Archives in Poetry

I have added a new entrant into the ‘Archives in Fiction’ section, accessible via the appropriate page tag. This time the quotation is from poetry, from Anne Stevenson, that conjures up that sense we get when we handle original items from the archives – more so when the piece of paper concerns one of our forebears, possibly even with their signature. Enjoy.