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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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.