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!


A Year of Anniversaries

Every year is a year of anniversaries and it is the mainstay of the heritage industry and easy journalism to commemorate them. More importantly, for the family historian it is where personal history and public history often intersect to remind us that we are participants not mere spectators. Examples can run from the distant past to our own modern lives.

150 years ago, on 12-13 December 1866, there was a series of explosions in the underground workings of the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley which took the lives of over 360 men and boys, including rescue workers. None of those involved was a Bashforth, but the events still intersected with our family. Bridget MacDonald (née Drudy), of Irish extraction, was the wife of Patrick (aka Peter) MacDonald and had a young son called John. Patrick and his brother Michael, also Irish, were killed in the explosion, leaving Bridget destitute – among many other widows from the disaster. How she managed in the years afterwards, who knows, but in 1869 she married my three-times great grandfather Thomas, who was a widower with two young boys, and they went on to have four more children.

Of course, 2016 has been the latest of a series of centennial commemorations of the Somme Battles of 1916. Three bearers of the Bashforth name fell that year. Private Willie Bashforth from Conisbrough, serving in the 12 West Yorkshire Regiment at Ypres, died of wounds on 27 March 1916 and is buried at Lijssenthoek in Belgium. Private Arthur Bashforth of 1/5 KOYLI died in an attack on the Leipzig Salient on 23 July 1916. 2nd Lieutenant John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth died in a futile attack on the Quadrilateral on 15 September when one of the first tanks to be used failed in front of the 9 Norfolk Regiment, leaving them exposed behind uncut barbed wire. Both the latter are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Memorable event followed in the 20th century. 1926 saw the General Strike from 4-13 May. On 4 October 1936, there was the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End and the Spanish Civil War was in full swing. In 1946, Winston Churchill made his speech about the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the Cold War was essentially launched. All apart from the last of these were before my time but have had echoes for me down the years of my own development, impinging on my consciousness.

On a more personal note, October 1956 made an impact on me because of the Hungarian Uprising, ruthlessly suppressed with Russian tanks in the November, alongside the Suez Canal invasion by French and British troops, and a growing awareness as I entered my teenage years of the dangers of nuclear warfare. While too young to do much about any of them, these were the seeds of future development. In 1966 Harold Wilson was re-elected with a massive majority for a Labour Government akin to the landslide of 1945, only to sell out any mandate to the IMF, whack up interest rates just as my parents bought their first house after years of scrimping and saving, since when I have never trusted the Labour Party as representatives of the interests of the working-classes. The same year I was confirmed in my opinion of both the Labour Party and the heavily bureaucratic nationalised industries by the events at Aberfan and the skinflint treatment of the local community that followed that tragedy.

As I wonder about 2016 and how it will be commemorated in the future, I recall the 40th anniversary of the death of topical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs on 9 April 1976. Check out his version of ‘When I’m Gone’ on YouTube – much more nuanced than cover versions I have heard. It is worth looking at these commemorations for signs of hope such as this and to restore faith and courage for the future. Goodbye 2016.

When the last pit closes

Yesterday the last shift clocked off at Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, marking the end of deep coal mining in the UK. There will be mixed feelings among the men and their families and the communities in which they live (many of them do not live locally but commute from long dead mining villages elsewhere). To get an idea of what it means you could do worse than read Richard Benson’s The Village.

Memories will cling. Pitmen form only a small part of my ancestral legacy, but nevertheless are part of my consciousness as a lad from County Durham. My father, Ray Bashforth, was a painter and decorator and his father was a plasterer, and before that there was a long male line of metal workers of one sort or another stretching back to the late 17th century, with a side line in keeping alehouses. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, would have been very familiar with colliers when he served in 11th Durham Light Infantry in WW1 – most of the recruits were pit men from Durham and Northumberland.

On the maternal side my mother’s grandfathers had connections. While Jim Martin was a cabinet maker by trade, after his own father, he was not very assiduous. He was more interested in his alternative career as a minor professional cricketer, as much for its alcoholic convivial side as anything. Because of that he was often on his travels in search of work and pit villages provided jobs for carpenters – hence Elsecar in Yorkshire and Bishop Auckland in County Durham.

My mother’s favourite grandfather was indeed a coal miner. Joe Percival was born illegitimate in Dirtpot near Allenheads and was farmed out to a lead mining family. He began his working life washing lead ore but when the trade went into decline he and the rest of the family headed for the Durham coalfields and he ended up at Toronto pit near Bishop Auckland.

Mam had two particular recollections of him. Sitting down to his meal, often some sort of meat and potato stew, he would exclaim to his wife, the redoubtable Alice, “Weers t’cyaks, mother?” – a reference to the plain scones that were a component of stews and mince. Aged 4 or 5, she also remembered him in his last years (he died in 1918 aged 58 of chronic nephritis) sitting on a straight backed chair outside his terrace house in Frederick Street, enjoying the sunshine on his face.

The men from Kellingley will have their own contradictory feelings this weekend after leaving such a mucky, dangerous job, but may appreciate the chance of sunshine on their backs rather than the threat of roof falls.

My personal memories from growing up in County Durham include the effects of pit closures. I recall the slag heaps next to the A1 at Ferryhill, newly sown with grass seed in the early 1960s – they called it landscaping. I also recall having to walk the gauntlet of gangs of youths in Darlington on a Saturday night near the bus station. Already suffering from the economic and social blight of closures, the lads and lasses from rival former pit villages found weekly entertainment in facing each other off.

My fondest memory however was a conversation with Jack Elliott of Birtley at Darlington Folk Club in 1963. He was an ex-miner turned folk singer and founder of a folk music dynasty. I remember his songs, but I also remember he told me that he would put the flags out when the last pit closed, for all his repertoire celebrated the miners and their lives. Are the flags out now, Jack?


Tribute to Pete Seeger

We were sat well back, almost up in ‘The Gods’, as we called the highest stalls in theatres. There was me, ‘Jack’ Handley and Ron Boyd, the hard core trio that formed ‘The Clevelanders’ folk group, from Darlington. It was late 1963, if my memory serves me right, and Jack had driven us up to Newcastle to the Flora Robson Theatre for a folk concert. There was only one act, there only needed to be one act that night – Pete Seeger.

Pete was on his world tour – to get an idea of what he played and sang, try to get a hold of his CBS recording ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Carnegie Hall as part of that  tour. He inspired me that night and the inspiration has stayed with me for over 50 years. I still have that LP; I still have a copy of his book on how to play the 5-string banjo. Whenever energy flags, his is the voice to turn to, in order to recharge the batteries.

When I heard the news today that Pete had died, for once I was not moved to tears, big as that loss may be. This is a time to celebrate a wonderful life and a wonderful man and his enormous legacy.

There are many stories about him that demonstrate flaws in his character, but one of them was never inconsistency. You knew exactly who he was. What you might not see, because he didn’t show it, did not matter. For a shy man, as it is said, to have led such a public life, to have faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee like he did, to have suffered the violence of the right wing mobs at Peekskill like he did, to have built an environmental movement against some local hostility in his own backyard persistently and generously over decades like he did, to have been standing there when it mattered like he did – well, what more inspiration to shy, timid people can there be?

Some people have criticised him for staying loyal too long to the Stalinist CP-USA and for not speaking out against Stalin’s evil deeds as outspokenly as he might. He chose rather to focus on doing positive, hopeful things for change for a better, more peaceful world. Some like me also spent time in the CP in the 60s until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, frankly, compared with the alternatives I have since experienced, there was more freedom and more opportunity to speak out in the YCL and CP then than in most of the Trotskyist and (allegedly libertarian) socialist or anarchist sects purporting to represent the alternative – bar none. So, let’s move on from that dead, old argument and get ourselves out of the dustbin of history until we find our way again. We have to build the movement anew, from the roots.

And, if you want inspiration on that journey, listen to Pete singing and I defy you not to join in. He certainly got us singing up in Newcastle on Tyne back in 1963. As the title of his autobiography (How Can I Keep from Singing?) implies, maybe singing is as good a place as any to start from. I hope that on some cloud, up there somewhere, encouraged by his beloved Toshi, Pete has organised a band of angels.

Sing up Pete, so we can all hear!

Happy Birthday Pete Seeger!

Today, 3 May 2013, Pete Seeger is 94. Happy Birthday, Pete! I hope family and friends gather round and you all have a great singaround.

In my own personal history, it must be nearly 50 years since I first heard Pete live in concert at what was then the Flora Robson Theatre on Tyneside in 1963. At the time, I was a member of a folk-cum-skiffle group called ‘The Clevelanders’ in Darlington. Ron Boyd, the banjo player, and I, were driven up by David ‘Jack’ Handley, our lead singer. I was a bit surprised that the concert was not totally sold out, though I suppose the new wave folk revival of the early 1960s was still only just gathering steam. The folk club we had started in Darlington was only a few weeks old.

Afterwards I got hold of the LP (that’s vinyl-speak for CD or MP3 download for those too young to understand), called ‘We Shall Overcome’, based on the Carnegie Hall Concert Pete made on that world tour. It is still inspiring to listen to all these decades later. Pete was not very long after surviving gruelling treatment from the ‘House UnAmerican Activities Committee’. These were the days immediately after McCarthyism (Pete having been a victim), accompanied by a growing Civil Rights Movement and, lurking in the background, the beginnings of involvement of US troops in Vietnam. In the UK, we watched all this, while ourselves campaigning against the H-Bomb and Apartheid in South Africa.

The world has changed much since then, but hardly for the better, despite partially winning some of those old battles. The underlying problem of capitalism remains brutally intact and just as aggressive in its intent and its contempt for humanity, culture and the natural world. Meanwhile movements to oppose it remain fragmented, ephemeral and largely ineffectual. We still need the Pete Seegers to inspire us towards something better and then, ‘We Shall Overcome’! Must get on and practice – learn new songs, write new songs, get people singing again.