The Living Tradition
|Vin Garbutt - The Happy Malcontent - by Pete Heywood Issue 33 July/August '99||
"Why not go out on a limb? That's where the fruit is". That could have been said by Will Rogers with Vin in mind, as he's gone on doing just that for decades. One of the many rewards from listening to Vin is that his originality extends to the subject matter of his awareness-raising songs, and another hallmark is that no matter how serious the subject, the tunes that carry those subjects are rarely - very rarely - dirges but extremely strong with thoughtful arrangements.
This quote above is an extract from a review by Hector Christie of Vin Garbutt's latest CD.
Vin Garbutt is one of the most genuinely popular artistes that the folk revival has produced. He is also a writer who is not afraid to tackle the big issues. Popularity and thought-provoking songs are generally an uneasy mix and the fact that Vin has sustained this over 30 years says something about him. In his private life, he is a genuinely warm and funny man who seems to have got most of the balances right. His home and family are important to him.
For many people in showbusiness there is a huge gulf between their public and private personas. The pressures associated with being a well known public figure will obviously contribute to some of this and it is often more distinct with people for whom humour is their stock-in-trade. The pressure to be funny is a strong one. Spike Milligan has brought that particular issue into the open - he is an officebearer with The Society for Manic Depression.
Vin started his career as a professional musician in the folk clubs and was one of several people who were categorised as "folk entertainers", most of them combining humour with a serious approach to their music. Quite a few went on to work successfully in the wider world of entertainment where inevitably the media focus was directed towards the humour and serious musicianship took a back seat.
Billy Connolly went through a period when he wanted to be taken seriously as a musician rather than to be known just for his humour. I witnessed an evening when he was rudely and aggressively heckled by part of an audience because he wanted to play, rather than joke. Billy eventually learned to handle it well. His banjo playing is now his hobby and when he is on-stage he knows that it is his humour that will pay the wages. It is easy to see how these kinds of pressures can lead to stress. Other performers found the transition more difficult. Moving out of the folk clubs meant that their humour became increasingly scripted rather than spontaneous and they avoided songs that might challenge their audiences.
Vin is careful to point out that he is first and foremost a musician and singer and his humour comes second. He hates it when he is advertised as a comedian. "If people come for comedy, they are unlikely to want to listen to the songs, if people come for the songs they will go away having both been challenged and having had a laugh."
Vin remains committed to the folk club scene and has never shyed away from difficult issues which have brought him into conflict with many people, including some close friends. Some of those who knew him well were forced to think more deeply about the issues out of respect for his obvious sincerity - some didn't listen at all. Vin is still effectively banned from a few major festivals, yet at others he is the headline act.
Once, Colin Randall, in his 'Pick of the Week' section in The Telegraph, referred to Vin as "the self-opinionated but essentially lovable folksinger, Vin Garbutt." Vin looked up the meaning of 'self-opinionated' in a dictionary to check the meaning. He didn't see any malice in the use of the phrase, particularly as Colin himself is a person who has never been afraid of championing the difficult cause having been deeply involved in the campaign to free Private Lee Clegg. Things like this though, obviously do have a wounding effect and it appears that on some issues you can be regarded as passionate, where on others you are self-opinionated. Vin made the point that Dick Gaughan for instance isn't generally described as 'Red under the bed folksinger, Dick Gaughan!'
Vin is currently telling people that he became a 'malcontent' in 1990. If Vin is a malcontent, he is the happiest one that I have met! In 1990, whilst on a tour in Australia he stayed with an organiser who was also a psychologist. He used a technique that involved mapping out your life to date and asking how you felt at different times. He reckoned that men didn't only have a mid-life crisis at 40, but had a similar period of critical self assessment every ten years thereafter!
Vin had read in an article in Folk Roots what the average sales were for a folk album. He realised that although his albums were rarely in the shops, he was selling far more on his gigs than most of the other professionals despite their albums being in the racks. Why was he being ignored? That question was niggling away in the back of his mind and Vin's conversation with his psychologist friend in Australia brought it to the surface - the source of his jokingly claimed discontent.
He approached Topic Records and was welcomed back to the fold by Tony Engle, but he soon realised that other people in the business didn't know who he was - hardly surprising when he has been ignored by the folk press. Vin refers to the fact that he has been in "the media shadow" since the mid 80s and again used the example of Dick Gaughan to contrast his coverage in the folk press with that of his peers.
Vin and Dick started out on their professional folk careers at roughly similar times and both have revealed their opinions in song. Dick's support for the miners during the pit strikes of the Thatcher years was a cause that generally found friendly ears within the folk clubs, although it still brought him flak. Dick's "A Different Kind of Love Song" was his answer to those who would have preferred him not to have used his platform as an artiste to proclaim his views. His writing of that song came after long hours of debate with people who were not shy in expressing their opinions of what Dick should sing or not sing.
Another of Dick's songs, "Both Sides of the Tweed", brought him flak from those on both sides of an argument. In Scotland it brought accusations of him being a Unionist, whilst in England it brought accusations of him being anti-English. "Howard Green" put Vin in a similar situation - accusations of being pro-IRA and of being a supporter of the British Army in Ulster!
Many of the situations songwriters write about eventually come to some conclusion. With hindsight, we can see that Arthur Scargill's claim that most of the deep mines were targets for closure - seen by many as scaremongering at the time - was true! The rights and wrongs can still be argued over, some see it as an inevitable change as an industrial economy moves to a service-based one. Other issues are still ongoing. Back in the 70s Vin wrote "Howard Green", a song about the Green Howards - a North Yorkshire/South Durham regiment of British soldiers sent to Northern Ireland in 1968. He is singing it on his current tour alongside a new song commenting on the peace process called "Troubles of Erin".
Despite this lack of media attention, Vin has a work schedule that would be the envy of any professional musician. How many artistes do you know who have a waiting list of people wanting to book them? Vin has called his latest tour 'Taking it Easy ... 30 Years on the Road'. Feeling ignored, he advertised it in Folk Roots and when people saw the list of gigs they all commented on how busy he was. For Vin it is actually a less busy schedule than normal.
As a general rule Vin asks his agent to only book him on two consecutive nights and then to have a day off to give his voice a rest. Vin usually travels by public transport and his working pattern of an average of three folk club gigs a week usually takes him five or six days to complete. For this tour, which is largely Arts Centre and small theatre based, his agent pointed out that three in a row would make much more sense. Vin agreed but asked for a gap of at least three days to recover. The result has been less time away from home and a much more economic tour. It has turned out to be 'taking it easy.'
Nobody can accuse Vin of not being a supporter of the folk club network. He is one of a relatively small band of artistes whose popularity gives a boost, both psychologically and financially, to the clubs where he plays. An artiste who fills the room, gives a performance that sends people away happy and more than balances the books is any club organiser's dream.
1990 was a watershed year when Vin took stock of the business aspects of his folk club work. He was still busy, had money in the bank, but moved into the red for the first time on a tour. The crunch came at a gig in when an audience of 18 turned up to see him. Vin was convinced that he had a bigger audience than that in the area but the fact was, the door charge was so low that all the money was going to Vin as a fee, leaving nothing for the organiser to spend on publicity. Another thing Vin noticed was that the clubs charging a realistic ticket price were busy - it was the cheap ones that were empty.
Vin is convinced that many people outside the folk clubs get the impression that they never have anything on, worth more than two pounds. He quotes a club organiser who charges a realistic ticket price, guarantees to refund the money if people don't like it - he puts his money where his mouth is - and even goes as far as to take orders for a local Pizza shop so that people could have a snack at half-time! He is a newcomer to the club scene but obviously knows that you have to compete if you want to reach people other than the hard core.
The obvious route for Vin would simply be to put his fee up, but he realised this would make it impossible for the smaller clubs to book him - and he didn't want to stop doing the smaller clubs. The other effect would be that instead of a busy night with Vin subsidising other nights, Vin would end up taking the bulk or even more money than would come in on the door.
His solution was simple but his policy was to bring him yet more flak from the very organisers who benefitted from his popularity. He decided to keep his basic fee exactly the same as it was in 1984 but also take an agreed percentage of the door money. The only variables then are the ticket price and the number of people coming. Vin was sure of his own popularity but as a professional musician needed to be sure that the ticket charge was reasonable. His agent was given the task of deciding what this should be.
This arrangement suited Vin, it removed the financial risk from the organiser, and it put money in club funds. Everybody won, yet he got arguments - among them must have been people with good jobs who would run a mile from the type of fee arrangement that they were suggesting. Imagine if a teacher was asked to teach 'for the door money' rather than a salary. Worse than that, imagine if somebody else then decided what the ' ticket price' - the cost of sending somebody to school - would be.
Various arguments were then put to Vin: surely you would prefer to play for 100 people at £2.50 than fifty people at £5.00? "Well no, not really. I would rather play for fifty people who thought I was worth a fiver than 100 people who only valued me at £2.50!" The other fallacy in this argument was that a lower price meant more people. If it was only a pound to get in, many people presumed that artistes in folk clubs were only worth a pound and didn't bother to turn up.
One organiser told Vin that he was making a big mistake and that he would price himself out of the market. At that time Whippersnapper were playing the clubs and Vin pointed out that at the prices the clubs charged, they would never be able to support a band like that in the longer term. Whippersnapper have now joined the ranks of many groups who were lost to the clubs - the list is a long one.
Back to the family... during the time I was down interviewing Vin, we adjourned to the pub in the village with his wife Pat and son Tim. When Tim was born Vin wanted to put a poem into the local paper alongside the birth announcement. It was refused because it contained the word ' foetus' in it - they thought that it might upset the staff. A photographer from another newspaper came round and took this picture of Vin and Tim. The birth announcement went like this:-
Birth - Garbutt To Pat (nee Austen) and Vin, a son, brother for Emma. Many thanks to the wonderful staff of Middlesborough General Hospital.
On Sunday he was our foetus, On Monday our son did greet us. So through the rest of his life, may we help him in strife. And please, God, the world won't defeat us.
The world hasn't defeated them yet - if all the malcontents were like Vin, the world would be a happier place.
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