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Saturday, June 17, 2017
Vin Garbutt obituary.
Folk singer and
songwriter known as the Teesside
his repertoire of self-composed and traditional folk songs sung with passion and
commitment, hilarious introductions and stories, a distinctive voice and a mop
of hair that either hung in ringlets or resembled an untidy haystack, Vin
Garbutt, who has died of heart disease aged 69, was one of the most popular
singers on the British folk music circuit. Dubbed the Teesside troubadour, Vin
found inspiration for his songs from his Irish mother’s family, as well as from
the industrial landscape of his home town and stories of its townspeople. In
addition to his skilful guitar playing, Vin was a highly accomplished player of
the whistle, with a wide repertoire of Irish tunes.
was born in South Bank, Middlesbrough, to Theresa (nee Kelly) and an English
father, Alfred, who worked in the local steelworks. On leaving St Peter’s
Catholic school, he worked at the ICI Wilton chemical plant on a six-year
apprenticeship but, on its completion, left to spend the summer busking in bars
in Spain. He had acquired his first guitar while at school, visiting the local
folk club and learning the protest songs of Bob Dylan and the rousing Irish
songs of the Clancy Brothers. He was also inspired by industrial songs from
nearby Tyneside – local songs sung in a local accent, and later said that folk
music gave him his sense of identity.
he returned from Spain, Vin joined a folk group, the Teesside Fettlers, but was
also determined to pursue a solo career. Touring clubs in north-east England, he
was soon offered bookings, and developed his repertoire of mainly Irish
Ron Angel’s The Chemical Worker’s Song
by the lack of traditional folk songs from industrial Teesside and its rural
hinterland, he started writing his own material about the area. Inspiration came
from local songwriter Graeme Miles, as well as from Ron Angel, whose
The Chemical Worker’s Song regularly featured in Vin’s performances.
the region’s heavy and dirty industry, Vin looked to a better future, most
notably in one of his best known songs, The Valley of Tees, which anticipated
the industrial landscape becoming green again to match the surrounding Cleveland
Hills. The song was the title track of his first solo album in 1972. Slaggy
Island Farewell was a bittersweet lament for the decaying steelworks and
changing social life in Slaggy Island, a local name for South Bank.
Irish heritage was reflected in several songs that took the Northern Ireland
troubles as their theme. With a Catholic mother and Protestant father, he was
never partisan, typically treating the victims of all sides as individuals, and
always pressing for peace. In Welcome Home Howard Green, he sang about the local
men he grew up with who served in the Green Howards, one of the first regiments
to serve in Northern
Ireland, while in The Troubles of Erin he looked forward to a deserved
was never afraid to tackle controversial topics in his songs. The title track of his 1983 album, Little Innocents, dealt with
the subject of abortion. His Catholic upbringing and strong faith indicated his
viewpoint, but his stance cost him bookings and media coverage, although some
opponents argued for his right to freedom of expression.
The song Lynda told of a Teesside woman’s fight for medical
treatment for her son, born with spina bifida, even though friends had suggested
a termination. Other songs tackling subjects such as unemployment (The Loftus
Emigrant), and the plight of asylum seekers (Teacher from Persia), were often
based on the lives of local people.
Vin’s songwriting was never parochial, tackling issues in East Timor and
Nicaragua, among others. There was also humour and humanity in his songs, as
well as in the patter in his introductions. Vin was a hilarious raconteur whose
stories often involved a humorous play on words, taking him into flights of
fantasy that delighted audiences.
The Valley of Tees, Vin released a steady stream of albums, latterly on his own
label, Home Roots, the most recent being Synthetic Hues in 2014. Two of his
albums, When the Tide Turns (1989, re-released 1998) and The By-Pass Syndrome
(1991) were produced by Alan Whetton of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, a dedicated
fan. Several albums captured Vin in live performance, although accommodating his
long introductions was always a challenge. In 2011, local film-maker Craig
Hornby made an affectionate documentary, Teesside Troubadour, which played to
packed houses in Middlesbrough’s Cineworld.
• Vincent Paul Garbutt, folk singer, born 20
November 1947; died 6 June 2017. Guardian.