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Here’s something Vin Garbutt won’t like

2008 November 25
by Paul Vallely

I’m sorry to disappoint Vin Garbutt. But I went to see him perform at the Lowry in Salford this week and I’m going to write a bit of a review. This will disillusion him because he reckons that journalists don’t like doing reviews since that requires them to have opinions. They prefer previews in which they can play safe by saying: “Go and see this bloke because other people have told me he’s good” without putting their own judgements on the line.

Vin Garbutt is not a bloke who is afraid of making judgements and letting the world know about them. He is a singer who has “arguably been the most popular solo performer on the British folk circuit for 30 years or more” according to Colin Randall of the Daily Telegraph. He is also a past winner of the prestigious Radio 2 “Best Live Act” Folk Award. At the Lowry he gave a vintage virtuoso performance.

What makes him such a total star is the juxtaposition of powerful expressive melodic songs punctuated by a warm comedy which begins with finely-observed insights about everyday life but which shifts seamlessly into a world which is surreal and bizarre. His songs have been the counterpoint to countless individual lives, as was evident from the huge number of requests for different songs made by his audience. The singer was characteristically self-deprecating about this: “A lot of people ask for songs they don’t like,” he riposted. “It’s to give them the chance to go to the loo without missing anything.”

One of the many songs he couldn’t fit in was one he wrote after reading a story in his local paper in Middlesbrough about a severely disabled girl who had just passed her GCSEs. The song tells the story of how the child’s mother had ignored suggestions that she have an abortion when the disability was first detected – and of the years of struggle the mother had had in supporting the girl.

Songs like that have got him into a lot of trouble. Like most of the best folksingers Vin Garbutt’s pedigree is impeccably left-wing. His songs are about asylum-seekers, people without jobs, oppressed foreign workers, deforestation, the abuse of agrochemicals, cosmetic surgery and sexual exploitation. But among the vulnerable he champions are babies in the womb. Songs about that have gone down badly with many on the folk circuit; for over a decade he has been banned by the politically-correct crowd who run its premier event, the Cambridge Folk Festival.

But someone at the Lowry shouted for the song. The request may well have been prompted by that morning’s news that more babies are now being born with Down’s syndrome than at any time since screening began. This is an interesting sociological shift. A third of mothers with Down’s children suggested in a survey this week that they proceeded with the pregnancy because they were against the idea of abortion for religious or other reasons. But 35 per cent said it was because society’s attitudes have changed and that life has now improved for people with Down’s syndrome.

That change has been happening slowly. It began in me a decade ago when I visited a group of young adults with the condition in Belfast whose parents had formed a self-help group that was allowing young adults with Down’s to holiday alone, do the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, find jobs in the open marketplace and much else. My eyes were opened.

It is contact with reality which disperses prejudice, which is why 4D ultrasound technology that shows video-like images of the foetus in the womb are making the public increasingly uneasy about late abortion. Maybe there’ll even be an invitation soon for Vin Garbutt to sing again at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

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