Written by Michael McGeary
with Pat & Louis Garbutt
He was the funniest man on the folk scene for more than 40 years, but for Vin Garbutt and his legion of fans, the music always came first.
Vin was famed for his “patter” – the meandering, pun-filled and riotously funny introductions. They would go on for so long that in the end he had to ask the audience to remind him which song he was about to sing. But when the singing started, the laughter stopped. Silence then descended upon packed-out venues from Middlesbrough to Melbourne.
Vin’s superbly crafted songs are packed with cutting social comment about the issues that moved him – from one of the first “green” folk
songs in Valley of Tees, to the issue of unemployment in the North-East in Not For The First Time and the many songs penned about oppression and injustice wherever he saw it in the world. These were complemented in his repertoire by unique renditions of the songs of others, including those he dubbed “the secret songwriters,” who he often heard doing floor spots when travelling around the world’s folk clubs.
Vin was born at 18 Coral Street, South Bank, Middlesbrough, on November 20th 1947, the day the Queen married young Philip Mountbatten. He was the third of four children born to an Irish Catholic mam, who taught him ballads and rebel songs and an English Protestant dad, who was the latest in a long line of Garbutt “patter-merchants.” For folk music lovers, theirs was a match made in heaven.
Vin as a toddler (1949)
Alfred 'Alf' Garbutt and Theresa 'Tessie' Garbutt (née Kelly), Vin's parents.
Growing up on Teesside in the 1960s, Vin formed the pop group, The Mystics, playing rhythm guitar and singing lead vocals alongside lifelong friend Pete Betts. However, when he discovered the subversive music being played in the emerging network of folk clubs across the North East of England, he felt a stirring deep inside, listening to songs he could relate to about the places and industry around him, especially in the image-rich writing of Graeme Miles. “I fell for it, hook, line and sinker,” he said. “I began to realise they weren’t just stories made up to fit a tune, as most pop songs were. Folk music was a totally different kettle of fish.”
By the time he was 18 he had started performing as a folk singer and was picking up bookings, while also accepting the offer of an apprenticeship as a turner at ICI – before asking the interviewer what a turner was. The job, and the characters he worked alongside, provided rich material for the early songs that Vin would try out on his workmates in the locker room. It was just as well he possessed such talent – by Vin’s own admission, he was possibly the worst turner ICI ever had! It probably came as a relief to his bosses when he completed his apprenticeship but handed in his notice at the age of 21.
He then headed off for six months in Spain, Morocco and Gibraltar in a campervan with five mates, a couple of guitars and his trusty tin whistle. They were singing in bars and passing the hat round to earn the price of a few drinks and some supper. The trip proved to be another pivotal episode in Vin’s life, honing his stage skills on the way to becoming recognised as a virtuoso performer. He returned home with a newly acquired taste for the exotic but found Teesside was still resolutely stuck in the 1960s. On his first morning back he asked his local greengrocer if she had any aubergines. “Ah, we don’t pet,” she said sympathetically, “Have you tried the hardware shop?”
Determined not to return to ICI, Vin had a phone installed in his parents’ home and got his first paid gig as a professional singer at The Dun Cow in Seaton Village, County Durham, at the age of 22. In 1970 he joined the popular Teesside Fettlers band, combining their performances with his solo gigs as his reputation as one of the most exciting up and coming acts on the folk circuit grew. During these early days, Vin had one of the most significant gigs of his life in 1971 at the Farningham Folk Club in Kent. The station where the train terminated turned out to be six miles from the venue. Vin telephoned to tell them his predicament and folk club regular Pat Austen was given the job of collecting him. Pat was to continue driving him around for the next 50 years as his wife – Vin never did learn to drive.
In 1972 Vin released his first album, The Valley of Tees. Bill Leader, who had recorded just about every top folkie from Ewan MacColl to Christy Moore, produced the LP on his own Trailer Records label. It was a confident debut. As well as that iconic title track it also featured the haunting Danny Danielle and the first of several songs Vin penned about the Troubles, Mr Gunman. The inclusion of the heart-breaking ballad, The Glens Of Sweet Mayo, was an example of Vin’s love of traditional folk music, which would remain with him throughout his career.
Eston Nab, Teesside (1970)
Three years later The Young Tin Whistle Pest LP, a live recording, brought the full impact of Vin’s uproarious patter into living rooms for the first time. Then came the serious business of tracks such as Slaggy Island Farewell, mourning the demise of the tight-knit South Bank community Vin was brought up in, and an iconic, unaccompanied rendition of fellow Fettler Ron Angel’s The Chemical Worker’s Song. There were also plenty of tunes from the eponymous tin whistle, both traditional and self-penned. This album highlights Vin’s leaning towards the folk tradition, with eight of the twelve tracks being trad with arrangements by Vin.
King Gooden followed in 1976 – and some people still haven’t got the cheeky pun in the title! In his late teens Vin had travelled to Ireland in search of his roots and this Gaelic research was again represented in We May And Might Never All Meet Here Again, The Bantry Girls Lament and The Green Mossy Banks Of The Lea, as well as ballads inspired by Teesside, Teesdale and Yorkshire folk.
Vin toured the United States every year from 1973 to 1979 and it was while he was there that he heard Trailer Records had gone bust, and the precious master tapes from those early recordings had been sold off to the highest bidder. He then joined one of the world’s oldest labels, Topic Records, and in 1977 released Eston California, which included Ring of Iron, written by Graeme Miles (the man Vin called “Teesside’s songwriting genius”), as well as Vin’s own North East anthem, The Land Of Three Rivers.
Tossin’ A Wobbler followed in 1978 and saw a marked improvement in production standards. Opening with fellow Clevelander Bernie Parry’s nostalgic Man Of The Earth, a song close to Vin-the-gardener’s heart. The album ends with The One-Legged Beggar, inspired by an encounter on a trip to Tunisia in 1973 and finally They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore, written by Vin’s great mate Pete Betts, which along with the album opener, became a mainstay of his live set list.
Vin’s final release for Topic was 1983’s Little Innocents. For the first time, more than half of the tracks were self-penned and there was also a departure in terms of subject matter, with two songs focusing on the sensitive issue of abortion (the title track and The Fear Of Imperfection/Lynda). The album was well received by many of his fans, although some consider that the strong anti-abortion sentiment led to a cooling of his relationship with Topic Records and alienation from some sections of the folk and wider media. But while always ready to listen to opposing views, Vin was also prepared to make sacrifices and stand up for his conviction that, like the other oppressed minorities he championed, unborn babies also had rights and deserved protection.
Vin recorded his second live album in Australia, Shy Tot Pommy, another one of those clever plays on words he’s famous for – say it quickly a few times if it passed you by. As well as more hilarious onstage patter, it also included the first of many songs Vin wrote about injustice in faraway
faraway corners of the world. Hymn To El Salvador (later re-recorded as simply El Salvador for The Vin Garbutt Songbook), with its intricate guitar work and soaring melody, remains among the best of Vin’s many memorable songs.
In 1989, Vin’s eighth album When The Tide Turns was recorded at Top Room Studio in Reading and released on Celtic Music in LP format. The album saw increased contributions from other top musicians, brought together by Vin’s close friend Hugh Crabtree (Feast Of Fiddles). However, following professional disagreements with Celtic Music, the album was re-released on CD as When The Tide Turns Again in 1998, featuring an extra track, The Court Of Cahirass. Beginning with Paul Wright’s rousing Where The Hell Are We Going To Live and ending with the thought-provoking The Secret, Keith Hancock’s masterpiece Absent Friends was among 10 storming tracks sandwiched in between. The title track was Vin’s favourite self-penned song, of which eight feature on this album.
By the release of When The Tide Turns, Vin was well established as one of the most popular artists on the live folk scene, selling out venues at home and increasingly abroad too. His regular world tours were earning him new armies of fans in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as all over Europe. But while he was adored by ever-larger numbers of gig-goers, he continued to be overlooked by much of the commercial folk world.
However, his career took a new direction in 1991 with the release of The By-Pass Syndrome on Vin and his wife Pat’s newly established Home Roots Music record label. It was very much the sister album to When The Tide Turns, featuring more or less the same supporting cast of musicians. The By-Pass Syndrome’s 13 high-quality tracks included three that came in at over six minutes long, the title track, Phil Millichip’s If I Had A Son and The Bloom Of The Broom. The closer, The November Wedding, was an ode to his own wedding and became an institution at the nuptials of friends and family.
The Vin Garbutt Band (L-R Paul Archer, Andy McLaughlin, Vin Garbutt, Bob Fox & Norman Holmes)
The follow-up album, 1994’s Bandalised, built on the success of increased musical collaboration, with the formation of the Vin Garbutt Band featuring Paul Archer, Nick Haigh, Norman Holmes, Andy McLaughlin and Bob Fox. The band would go on the road for an exclusive short-lived tour. The format of this album is an alternation of vocal tracks and ensemble folk jams, from the opener, England My England, to the upbeat, Philippino Maid. The record’s many highlights also include a standout version of the Irish folk standard The Rose of Tralee.
Due to popular demand, a third live album was produced in 1995… Plugged!. This became Vin’s all-time best-selling record, with his version of Brian Bedford’s Wings also enduring to be his most requested song on tour. Both sides of Vin’s personality were epitomised through the hard-hitting Darwin To Dili and the comical Fell Off The Back Of A Boat. The former was a song Vin would like to be remembered for, but the latter, one Vin often described as a “throwaway song”, was often chosen for radio play. As an introduction to the “Vin Garbutt experience”, Plugged! was always the recommended go-to album. Another powerful finisher was the cry against injustice, When Oppressed Becomes Oppressor, which prompted Tom Paxton to write “What a great piece of work that is!”
Titled in reference to Vin’s continued absence from the media, Word of Mouth in 1999 included another song dedicated to the search for peace in Ireland, the beautiful The Troubles of Erin. Never afraid to bring social comment to a wider audience, Vin boldly sang the ballad to 35,000 fans during a half-time break at Middlesbrough Football Club’s Riverside Stadium. Loudon Wainwright III’s response to this song, after he requested Vin perform at one of his own concerts in Australia, was simply… “Holy cow!” The nine songs written and composed by Vin on this album, tracks such as City Of Angels, Forty Thieves and The Beggar’s Bridge, help certify it as one of his best.
Selling LPs directly via gigs and also harnessing the emerging power of the internet proved a masterstroke and provided Vin with a new marketplace and increased business efficiency (no more 14-day delays waiting for organisers to reply by letter from Australia). But although Vin’s success was down to the operation of his own cottage industry away from the major folk labels, it couldn’t be ignored, and he was nominated for a number of BBC Folk Awards and was named Best Live Act in 2001. That same year he was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts by Teesside University for his music and his services to the arts and culture of the North East of England.
The Vin Garbutt Songbook: Volume One, was published in 2003 featuring
music, lyrics and stories behind classic songs Vin had written throughout his career and was accompanied with its own album – the closest thing to a greatest hits compilation Vin ever released. Sadly, Volume Two was never to be.
It was during this period that Vin was diagnosed with heart problems, shortly after returning from a world tour in early 2004. He underwent surgery the following year and recovered well enough to resume touring and release his next album. In Persona…Grata, a 2005 offering, Vin turned to more of the “secret songwriters” he had met while touring the folk clubs of the UK, with Bryn Philips’ Silver and Gold, George Papavgeris’s The Flowers and the Guns and Shep Woolley’s Down by the Dockyard Wall. Vin’s Daughter, Emma makes an appearance on backing vocals for Dave Wilson’s Storm Around Tumbledown. There is also an example of Vin’s genius for melody as he brings alive Edgar Guest’s optimistic poem It Couldn’t Be Done by putting it to music.
As Vin learnt to manage his health following the release of Persona… Grata, it would be nine years before Vin’s next and final LP. However, during the late 2000s, a documentary feature film and live DVD, Teesside Troubadour, was shot and developed by filmmaker Craig Hornby, who accompanied Vin on the road for three years, including a world tour. On being asked about the film, Craig said, "Vin is a one off. He is local and totally global. He is very serious and absolutely hilarious. It was a unique and important cultural story from Teesside that I had to document.” Released in 2010, the film was shown to sell-out screenings for a week at Cineworld in Middlesbrough.
Craig Hornby and Vin, Sydney, Australia, 2008
In 2014 Synthetic Hues was released. It included a second recording of the much-loved poem, If, this time with guitar accompaniment and continuing into the tune on its own, which Vin named, The Kipple Bat. He also got around to including an original version of Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land, previously recorded in Australia for a charity album of Bogle songs. Eric described Vin’s version of his classic as his favourite track. Every track on the album was a Bogle song, so that was quite a compliment. Teacher From Persia is a song Vin was particularly proud of, detailing the plight of an asylum seeker who Vin was introduced to in Middlesbrough. The last song Vin ever wrote found its home on this album too, the reflective Your Welcome Was So Warm, a thank you to all those who supported him throughout his career.
In 2015, I started working on an autobiography with Vin, having been a long-time friend and fan who had taken every opportunity I could to promote his music in print. However, Vin passed away unexpectedly on June 6th 2017 after undergoing another heart operation, as the first draft of the book was waiting for him to read. He was loved by Teessiders and folk fans alike and his funeral was held at a packed St Mary’s Cathedral in Middlesbrough, where a moving eulogy was given by his four children.
Vin Garbutt loved performing, usually while supping a pint brought up to him by an admirer in the audience. He would ask for a round of applause for his benefactor and then add, “And you too could have an applause like that!”
Throughout his life, Vin travelled the world with his guitar and tin whistle, spending time in some of the most inspiring and exotic places it could offer. But he was happiest of all on the North Yorkshire coast, at home with his family on his clifftop, which he called “the most beautiful place on earth”.
All The Very Best – My Story, by Vin Garbutt, is scheduled for publication in the coming year.