Robb Johnson: Johnny Hallyday, mon héros (2)
Vin Garbutt & Cambridge: what's the real story? (2)

Vin Garbutt & Cambridge: what's the real story?

The Cambridge Folk Festival is almost upon us again, with all its familiar aspects: Sold Out notices since the word go and, for those lucky enough to have tickets, prayers for fine weather and the usual, gloriously eclectic mix of music in prospect. But, and this is equally familiar, no Vin Garbutt.

Why is it that Britain's pre-eminent folk festival can find no welcome for the man who has arguably been the most popular solo performer on the British folk circuit for 30 years or more?

Vin's absence was the recent subject of a long discussion at BBC Radio 2's Folk and Acoustic music forum, a thread dominated by one obvious question - is Vin Garbutt banned because of his views/songs on abortion? - and inspired by the organisers of a spirited little campaign to persuade Cambridge to put him back on its bill.

First the bad news. There's still be no Vin at Cherry Hinton fields this coming weekend. And the good, or better news: an unequivocal assurance from Eddie Barcan, director of the festival: "There is no ban."

First things first. People often say something along these lines, but here is my version:

Vin passionately opposes abortion. He writes songs, Little Innocents and The Secret being well known among them, driven by that position. I disagree fundamentally with him. But my support for women's rights on abortion is not quite so strong as my belief in free speech, with very narrow exceptions (such as incitement to murder, racial hatred - things that are in any case criminal offences in themselves, in mature democracies).

As I said in one of my contributions to that BBC discussion, the issue really is as simple as this:

1) no one should criticise a pro-abortion organisation for not choosing Vin as the guest of honour at its annual folk music evening
2) no organiser of folk events aimed at the broader public should be surprised to be criticised if they enforce formal or informal bans on good, popular artists who happen to sing a couple of songs they disapprove of.

But you will need to bear with me, because beyond that the specific question of Vin and Cambridge is not at all clear cut. There is a very significant difference in memory and this affects the positions of each side.

Vin and his agent believe he was routinely, and deliberately, overlooked after a controversy about his last performance at the festival. Vin, speaking off the cuff, thinks this was in 1994; Eddie, who must surely be right on this point, says it was 1990. But that is not the important clash of memory.

Both agree that whenever he last appeared at Cambridge, Vin sang at least one of his contentious songs (The Secret).

According to Eddie, this "upset a number of women attending the festival"; according to Vin, the most memorable feedback was a personal approach from a woman who offered heartfelt thanks for putting what was close to her own story to words and music.

In 2001, Vin won the Best Live Performer prize in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. As often happens following such an honour, the recipient - VG - was approached by Eddie about appearing at the next festival.

Vin and his agent believe the invitation had a condition attached: that he did not perform the offending song, which I suppose means by implication any anti-abortion song. Vin thought his agent had declined on his behalf, knowing his client's certain response. The agent says he did not decline before confirming with Vin that this was what he wanted.

And here is that vital difference in recollection: Eddie says he imposed no such condition, and that he would never do so.

Vin, Eddie tells me after checking the files, appeared at the festival in 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1985 and 1990.

And he adds: "Whatever the conflict in memory recall, Vin isn't banned. I'll happily consider him alongside all the other possibilities and my decision whether to book him or not will be based on the balance of the bill in any given year."

When I spoke to Vin about his last performance at Cambridge, he said his abiding memory was of a woman who approached him afterwards to talk about the relevance of The Secret* to her own experiences.

"She regarded it as a sympathetic song and we talked for 20 to 30 minutes about things she had probably suppressed for years," he said. "It was the first time she had heard her story told by a third party. It would be a bit rich if I were banned from Cambridge for being anti-women when there was this woman, at Cambridge, for whom my song had meant so much. I don't recall any audience reaction to me that worried me in the least."

Eddie recalls a fuss about an anti-abortion song on Vin's last visit but is adamant that he is not excluded as a result. His own recollection is that when Vin was approached in about 2001, "to the best of my knowledge he
didn't appear because he wasn't availalable".

"The booking was certainly not conditional on him not playing certain songs. There's no way we'd censor an artist in this way. I can't recall the agent calling me back since. Vin last appeared in 1990 and before that in 1980, so I think he is certainly due a return."

Both in a detailed, explanatory e-mail and in a follow-up conversation, Eddie points to huge demand from artists to play Cambridge. Apart from the big names invited by Cambridge, the first approaches tend to come from artists' representatives. Eddie operates a booking policy that aims at ensuring that at least half the performers eventually selected have never appeared there before.

"Otherwise, it would just be the same names again and again. This means that some of the older faces do now have quite large gaps between appearances, eg the Chieftains (approximately 18 yrs!), Ralph
McTell, the Dubliners - I could go on.

"There's also a long, long list of people who've never appeared. Bruce Cockburn is making a very long overdue debut this year."

Eddie says that if he appears to have given preferential treatment to up-and-coming artists, who in recent years have included Seth Lakeman, Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon, and more recently Rachael Unthank, Kris Drever and Bellowhead, it is because he considers it important to support and encourage people "who represent the cutting edge and future of the folk movement".

"It's certainly a careful balancing act - for every one of these younger artists there's also always an older inspiration. For example Kate Rusby had Dave Burland, Beth Orton's was Bert Jansch, while Eliza Carthy and Tim Van Eyken had the Waterson and Carthy families."

These are important, sensible points. I know Eddie Barcan - we were judges together when Tim Van Eyken romped to success from one year's line-up of finalists at the BBC Young Folk Awards - and respect his work at the festival.

However, I have always suspected that Vin has been the victim of a branch of folk's thought police; he has a vivid memory of being told by someone in Vancouver that he was not invited to a particular event there "for your own safety".

Whether Cambridge, even subconsciously, was ever part of that censorship process remains open to doubt. Vin has his very clear recollection, Eddie has his and we must accept at face value the latter's welcome assertion that he/Cambridge would never set himself/itself up as custodians of opinion, deniers of free expression.

Given Eddie's emphasis on balance, it is not for me to say whether I would be surprised if Vin received no invitation to appear at the 2008 Cambridge Folk Festival. But I hope he will not mind if I do say that I would be disappointed.


Rob Henderson

There is alot of people who would be dissapointed to see Vin Garbutt missed from the 2008 line up, was spawned from the voices of Cambridge Folk Festival.

Thankyou for an informative and unbiased view on the matter. Let's hope it's time for Vin to return to Cambridge :)

Richard Collins

I have promoted Vin out here in Perth, Western Australia for nearly 30 years. Peoples response to his performance has always been very positive and he is as popular here as ever. I do remember way back some angst towards him from a very small percentage of the audience who didnt like the stand he made on abortion. Most people gave him a right to have his opinion and some agreed with him.
Freedom of speech to me has always been the backbone of the folk movement and one of the qualities that endeared me to it. I would find it strangely odd and unbalanced if one of Britains most prestigeous festivals like Cambridge would chose to preclude from its programme one of the countries most loved and popular performers.

Robin Dennis

Yes agreed, this is very bad news that Vin still hasn't recieved an invite for Cambridge. Especially afterhis Folk award. Leaves me thinking theres something not quite right behind the scenes at cambridge. I think the organisers are more political minded than we give them credit for, they remind me of labour....enough said.


Still no vin on at Cambridge this year either. They need to pull there finger out.


Wtf, robin Dennis?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)