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Vin Garbutt - 20 November 1947 - 6 June 2017

It is with deep sadness that we report the passing of Vin Garbutt. Vin’s heart problems over recent years have been aired in public, mainly from the mouth of Vin himself whose hilarious routines about his medical experiences should surely be available on prescription. Laughter is a great tonic and a medicine which Vin dished out like a pharmacist on steroids. Following recent heart surgery for valve replacements, Vin appeared to be making a good recovery, with some initial setbacks. But then shock at news of his death hit people hard. This isn’t an in-depth summary of Vin’s life - those records and tributes exist elsewhere - rather it is a fairly random collection of thoughts and observations from myself and others.

Many people will regard Vin as a friend, rather than just another musician passing through. That feeling comes from the fact that Vin took a genuine interest in people and because it is uplifting to be in the company of someone so positive. We will all have memories, often shared ones, which will live with us forever. Heather and I first saw Vin at Sidmouth Folk Week in the early seventies, when Vin was a member of the Teesside Fettlers. A couple of years later we were in the audience at The Dumfries Folksong Club when Bill Leader was doing one of the live recording sessions which resulted in his Young Tin Whistle Pest LP, and over the years we have many other wonderful memories.

Vin had closer friendships which spanned the years. Bob Fox is one person who immediately comes to mind. As fellow musicians, their mutual respect was obvious and upfront, but behind the scenes there were helping hands in both directions. Other musicians, too numerous to mention, also had a strong bond with Vin. He was an inspirational figure on many levels.

One close friend, Paddy McEvoy, helped to give a deeper insight into Vin in the documentary film, Teesside Troubadour. That documentary was made by Craig Hornby, a filmmaker who was local to Vin but who was generally coming from a quite different musical background. Craig was totally captivated by Vin and was determined that his story should be told. That documentary is now part of Vin’s legacy.

In recent years Vin spoke regularly about “the media shadow” but I don’t think that recognition in the wider music business had that much attraction for Vin. His accent and singing style were barriers to a wider audience, but once inside Vin’s world you were hooked. Martin Carthy commented that “Vin flew best under the radar” and he was happy with his place in the folk scene. In reality, he enjoyed an elevated position with ‘Full House’ signs going up regularly wherever he played. Although he played at many festivals, he was happier in front of an audience which he could directly interact with.

Speaking after Vin’s death, Paddy McEvoy made a number of shrewd comments and referred to Vin as “the Tommy Cooper of the folk world”. What a wonderful observation! Paddy also described Vin as “an omnivore as regards information” and noted that his passing had reverberations right round the world. “He made a huge impression on people. A remarkable human being. Quite extraordinary.”

Vin was courageous in his songwriting. He told it as he saw it. His songs weren’t frivolous; there was substance, experience and conviction behind them. His songs needed to be listened to and the folk clubs, where people were used to listening to the stories in the songs, proved to be the idea platform for his talents. He championed other writers and his sets generally consisted of a mix of his own songs and songs from the pen of others, together with traditional songs.

Whereas other folk comedians drifted towards the comedy material at the expense of their songs, Vin continued to highlight meaty songs. On a recent recording, Vin sang Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land, a powerful song but one which has been aired too often in a pub singalong. Vin’s version cut straight to the heart of the song, bringing a tear to the eye of those listening. A masterful performance.

Another friend and songwriter, Colum Sands, who himself is a close observer of what is going on around him, said: “Anytime I was beside Vin, I always had the feeling that he was seeing things that no one else could see and perhaps it will always be so. I'll think of him now, viewing new horizons, the hint of a smile playing around his face as he plots new words and melodies to weave a song into a better world for us all.”

Jez Lowe added his own insight into what made Vin tick: “You could perhaps trace his Irish ancestry in his words and in his songs, but the onstage delivery of what he did must surely have come from within him, because there was no-one else to compare him to on that score. When we talked about it once, he told me how the humour, the zany use of language and comic phrasing came from his own family, and moreover from Teesside itself. His pride in his background was well known, and he unflinchingly expressed it to whole world. It was as if the essence of James Joyce, John Lennon, Spike Milligan and Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners had been forged into one whole being in an ICI workshop in South Bank in 1947, and then let loose into the world, armed with a guitar and a tin whistle.”

Vin left us at the top of his game. When he spoke to me about retirement it sounded very much like a gentler version of what he has done throughout his professional life - travelling the world, meeting old friends and singing songs. It was standing room only for his funeral in St Mary’s Cathedral, Middlesborough. The service was almost two hours long. The singing was vigorous and the highlight was the emotional eulogy delivered by Vin and Pat's four children. There was a collection for Zoe's Place, a series of hospices for babies and children.

A toast, of sorts, proposed by Colum Sands and surely echoed by us all: “From the shores of Ireland and the land of his mother, across to the shores of the North East of England, here's to a life that will be remembered. Deepest respect and gratitude to Vin's memory and much love to Pat, his family and countless musical friends around the world.”

by Pete Heywood