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!


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!

Heritage and the Ecology of Significance

Heritage and the ‘ecology of significance’

I am not sure who invented the phrase ‘ecology of significance’, nor what was precisely meant by it, but it is a concept of enormous value in debates about heritage values and may echo with those of us exploring the wider significance of family history. I first heard it 15 October when the AHRC Connected Communities project in which I am involved was resumed. It was put forward by a geographer in my workshop group and struck an immediate chord. Since then I have done some more hunting.

The phrase can be read in several ways, for the English language has ambiguity and metaphor built into its structure. The phrase ‘ecology of significance’ can be used to mean:

1. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘of significance’ as its qualifier: hence, an ‘ecology’ that has ‘significance’. This might apply to a particular site which has value compared with other sites that have little or no value in a particular context. Around 1966-7, the Smithsonian Institute talked of developing courses on ‘ecology of significance’ to conservation efforts.

2. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘of significance’ as its qualifier: but this time, an ‘ecology’ that has ‘significance’ as or for something else. This might apply to an environmental complex that has value to natural historians in a different way from its value to building developers. Passing remarks in project development reports published in the Antipodes in the first decade of this century link the concept to the impact of construction on the environment. More generally, M.V. van Doorn has published a book Towards an Ecology of Significance: from growth to development – I have not been able to establish a date of publication, but it seems to be in this same area of concern.

3. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘significance’ as its content: that is, meaning (or meanings) in an environment or location. The one time when I have found the phrase apparently used in this sense occurs in literary criticism. John Hollander used the phrase in a discussion of the poetry of A. R. Ammons[1]. The link is to the natural environment in which the poet’s sensibility is situated and from which he draws meaning.

This third sense of ‘significance’ arising as a response to the environment is much closer to what is relevant to heritage values and is something that family historians may experience when they explore locations of relevance to their ancestral past, as well as to their own sense of ‘home’. It has often been discussed in the literature about heritage in terms of ‘identity’, but I think that is too bland a term.

When I was much younger and travelling home to Darlington, I well remember certain landmarks seen from the train. The first was the view of the Cleveland Hills emerging on the right hand side; the second was the gradual change to slightly russet colours in the green of the natural vegetation; both signs of entering the ‘North East’. Closer to home large cooling towers hove in view alongside three tall chimneys we knew as the ‘cricket stumps’, and finally the rows of terrace houses that were my childhood haunts and the familiar line-side factories where neighbours and relatives worked. There was a complex of associations: structures, buildings, landscape, natural colours and memories of things familiar from my early upbringing, sometimes leading on to further associations.

Much later in life, I travelled to the area around Allenheads on the Durham/Northumberland border, chilly at that altitude even in mid-summer, with the scattered remnants of the once thriving industry of lead-mining, the villages rendered silently picturesque, now the haunt of commuters and occasional tourists. This was where my mother’s favourite grandfather, Joe Percival, was born and spent his childhood years, captured in the 1871 census aged 12 and working on the washing rake at Rookhope. An environment once significant to him became meaningful to me. As I wandered along the many scattered tracks across a landscape in which rock outcrops outnumbered trees, the latter barely shrubs, my imagination and sensibilities began to engage. It became ‘ecology of significance’, though only now can I conceive of it in that way.

Much the same can be said in relation to the area west of Barnsley, the landscape in which my seventeenth and eighteenth century Bashforth ancestors settled and left their records. This too represents ‘ecology of significance’, since my ancestors contributed to the way in which the environment was shaped and they were shaped in return. They walked along the lanes and footpaths, brushing against the trees and vegetation, collecting fallen wood for fuel. They talked to neighbours, haggled over prices for raw materials and their wares, carried goods to market, married, brought children into the world and buried some of them almost as quickly. Many lie unmarked in the village churchyard. The significance need not be attached to particular buildings – the church at Silkstone in which my ancestors were ‘hatched, matched and dispatched’ has had its architecture and interior massively altered since the 18th century and is no longer separate from the village but surrounded on all sides. It means something different to the villagers of today, but its significance continues.

The same applies to the nearby township of Dodworth, where my various ancestors actually lived, and the fabric has changed here beyond all recognition. On one side of the High Street can be found Nino’s Pizza House, with its quaint wooden door dated 1641. Opposite is the brand new memorial to the local miners, unveiled this year, though the pits disappeared more than a generation ago.

Seasons came and went, months and years passed by, people came and left. Their footprints and echoes remain. This is heritage, my heritage, though not mine as personal property, but shared, and not managed by anyone in particular – nobody owns it, nobody can quite pin it down. There is a specific quality to the use of the word ‘ecology’ in this context, as it implies both continuity and change – ecology evolves.

Significance itself evolves and any place may have different ‘significance’ to different people for different reasons. You can’t bottle ‘ecology of significance’. Equally, I would argue, you can’t put ‘heritage’ in a box and sell it as a commodity. What we now call ‘Heritage’, the stuff of institutions, professions and Government Policy, narrows, confines, constricts and perhaps even oppresses the wider ‘ecology of significance’. (Or should that properly be in the plural?) Presented as our friend, maybe ‘Heritage’ is our enemy, someone else’s product sold to us allegedly in our own best interest and allegedly because ‘we’ demand it. Significance (and its ecology) is more about the heart than the head.


[1] John Hollander, The Work of Poetry, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1997)

Objects of Identification: Heritage and History


I took this photo on a visit to Bede’s World, near Jarrow, where I was taking part in an AHRC-funded project on co-design in heritage. I simply had to go across the park from the main building to the ancient church of St Paul, Jarrow. Tucked away by the altar is this ancient chair that has been dated back to the mid to late Saxon period and is generally referred to as ‘Bede’s Chair’. It has great personal significance for me, and perhaps for others.

In the context of heritage theory there is a great deal of discussion about identity formation and the role that can be played by heritage objects (places, buildings, things). Most of this theory starts from the object, rather than the person. In the process it misses the essential, individual emotional connection and the process through which that is created (or not – not everyone succumbs to this).

I was born in Darlington. Normally one’s birthplace might be expected to be a place of identification. It is for me to a small degree, but it has no emotional pull. I have lived there for two periods in my life, between them amounting for almost half. But I have no desire to go back there to live any more. The town has resonance through memories of events that happened to me there, not so much the place itself. Some memories are not always happy, the associations not always positive, though the majority are.

One event was brought to mind the moment the location of our project workshop was announced. Way back in 1959 or 1960, I was on a school bus trip to explore Hadrian’s Wall, starting from Wallsend and visiting places en route to Housesteads Roman Fort. I had already begun to form an emotional identification with County Durham, mostly through reading a book called ‘Land of the Three Rivers’.

On the first sight of ‘Bede’s Chair’ when we arrived at St Paul’s it was as if something from an ancient past had grabbed hold of me inside. I became a Northumbrian from that moment to the present. No matter where I have lived in the past, where I live now or where I might live in the future, this will stay with me.

I have no desire to see a new tier of regional government based on Durham City, Newcastle, or Yeavering for that matter. I don’t fly the Northumbrian flag out of my bedroom window. I don’t particularly take an interest in regional football teams (though it is somewhat romantic that Darlington FC is now toiling away in the depths of the Northern League).

Being Northumbrian is an emotional thing. It is more relevant to me than being English – that is just the country of birth, the language I speak – and something far more vital than being British, yet another imposed identity value. Being Northumbrian is something I chose, though it felt as if it chose me. I guess it is that two-way process that creates identity.

And what could be more appropriate than to blog this on St Cuthbert’s Day, 20 March! Yet another part of this identity process, alongside listening to Kathryn Tickell play the small pipes, books on the Anglo-Saxons, spending the real Millenium day on Holy Island (1 Jan 2001). This is Heritage, but let’s not kid ourselves that it has anything to do with its analytical cousin, History.