Remembering Vin Garbutt

Vin Garbutt was a folk musician and singer-songwriter from Teesside, in the North East of England. As you can see below, I've been a fan for many years. His music is probably one of the biggest folk influences of my life, and I have so many fond memories of his gigs.

Me with Vin, circa 1997.

Me with Vin, circa 1997.

If you never got to see Vin, he's hard to describe. He had a terrible sense of humour, and delighted in the worst of puns and tortuous jokes in his patter, and loved riffing off the audience. There was normally about twice as much talking as singing, so his studio albums never quite do justice to the sheer joy of watching him live.

But his music, whether it was stuff he wrote himself, or covers of traditional or modern songs, was thoughtful, compassionate, and eloquent. Vin was a true 'social justice warrior', decades before the term existed (his career spanned almost 50 years). He travelled all over the world, playing to ex-pats in folk clubs wherever he found them, and he wrote songs about hardships and injustices and real human stories the world over. He gave old songs a new lease of life and urgency, and he wrote about issues that it was otherwise easy to overlook.

This is a clip of Vin doing a traditional song called 'Believe me if all those endearing young charms', a setting of a poem written in 1808 by Irish poet Thomas Moore. I'll let him introduce it in his own inimitable style (you have to skip to at least 5 minutes in to get the actual song).

Swanage Folk Festival September 2010

And then this is one he wrote about the Northern Irish Troubles: 'The Troubles of Erin'.

Troubles of Erin.

As you'll definitely have picked up if you watched either of those, Vin had a strong Teesside accent, and it was always an integral part of his music and his humour. None of Vin's jokes or songs ever really sound the same from anyone else. 

I'm from Birmingham, and I went to Oxford University to study when I was 18. I did well, I enjoyed my time there. It's a wonderful place and I met fantastic friends, and I've never left. But studying at Oxford often felt like an exercise in conforming. Arriving as a teenager with a healthy dose of Imposter Syndrome, I wanted nothing more than to feel like I 'belonged'. But, for the most part, everyone around me sounded posh and was Southern (mostly from London) and private-schooled. When I said I was from Birmingham, this was the response I inevitably got:

  1. You don't sound like you're from "Buuuuurminghuuum"

Desperate to fit in and be liked, I probably said something like, "I know. I'm from Sutton Coldfield. It's one of the posh bits." (Sometimes they knew that already, often they'd stopped listening anyway.) I also got a lot of being lumped in with 'the north', although Birmingham is the Midlands.

I really don't have a Birmingham accent, but I didn't even know what a Birmingham accent sounded like until I went to Oxford. When I came back after my first term, it was like everyone had stopped sounding right. Having spend 9 weeks immersed with people from all over the country, but mostly people who sounded posh to me, I had become one. My accent was now all over the place. My family sounded different to me, my friends even more so. And I sounded different to them. For the whole of my degree my accent would bounce between what I thought of as neutral and what they thought of as posh without me being able to do anything about it.

I'm not working class, and I didn't go to a comprehensive (I went to a girls' Grammar School), so I didn't have to assimilate or stand out on those axes as well. But I really remember feeling that my choices were: blend in and pretend you're one of them, or stand out and be treated like you have a chip on your shoulder. It's something I also occasionally faced as a female mathematician.

Anyway, back to Vin. Basically, it's easy to get the impression at Oxford that if you don't sound posh, you must be stupid. The posh boys are the people with all the confidence when you arrive, they're the ones who feel they were born to Oxford, raised for it, and they have fun putting everyone else in 'their place' (generalising horribly, of course). But when I was questioning myself about these things, it was people like Vin Garbutt and Jake Thackray who reassured me. They reminded me:

You don't have to be posh to be clever

Which is stupid. Because, broadly speaking, I am quite posh. My family is very comfortably middle class, and I don't have a Birmingham accent. And I still got all that rubbish. Think how much worse it is for people who don't want to, or can't 'pass'? How exhausting that is. Have a think - do you ever remember thinking that someone with a strong regional accent was a bit stupid? That if a working-class person wouldn't be as bright or talented as someone else? These are absolutely false, but I came across them frequently. There are people who will treat others with contempt for no reason other than that they are different (obviously).

But Vin wrote clever, complicated songs with big vocabularies about real issues, and he sung them with the strongest Teesside accent I'd ever heard. I clung to that when I felt alone. I am devastated that he's gone, and that I will never see him at a gig again.

Vin Garbutt - The Albert Hole Bristol 20-1-99 `Wings - (Brian Bedford)