Having gone to the USA for my first, second, fourth, fifth and eighth choices, and Ireland for my third, Scotland for my sixth, and England for my seventh, I choose to go back to England again for my ninth.
It reminds me that the type of song that made me sign up as a teenage devotee to the Folk Music movement...and to that genre of Folk Music which was called the Protest Song. Such songs by the likes of Pete Seeger/Bob Dylan/Joan Baez etc., were what first floated my boat and frogmarched me away from my boyhood obsession with Radio Luxembourg and AFN Frankfurt and the pop charts.
And I am today zeroing-in on the “Protest Song” to end all protest songs: a song that brought its brilliant writer equal doses of acclaim and opprobrium. I have been at festivals where people alongside me have leapt to their feet and booed loudly when he announced that he was going to sing this song, whilst myself and some others in the vicinity just glared and appealed to his detractors to “zip it”. We did so, not because we necessarily shared the songwriter’s views, but because we were anti-censorship and did not believe that artistes of his genius should be shouted down.
And this “artiste of genius” was of course the late Vin Garbutt. He was a compelling performer with an outstanding stage presence, and a sensational voice, guitar and whistle mastery, and a glorious surrealistic wit to match. But somehow, a few years after his far-too-early death at 69 in 2017, whilst we remember all that, his extraordinary talent for songwriting is somehow, if not exactly lost, at least found bringing up the rear, when we bring to mind the overall package that was “Vin Extraordinaire”.
And gee... this guy could write a song that did not just play on a loop in your head for months after first hearing it: he wrote a song that told you what Vin’s standpoint was. He was the antithesis of a Randy Newman: he did not write his songs “in character”. You always knew that even when his song was seemingly embracing the view of its central protagonist, that Vin’s viewpoint was also there, vibrating up through the surface, for us all to see.
And those songs always took a stance – they were never vacillating between one view or the other – and that stance was invariably on the side of humanity.
The problem for Vin with his magnum opus/hot potato (take your pick) that I am discussing below, is that what is humane to one person, can be seen as inhumane to another. And boy oh boy... this song created a brouhaha the likes of which have not been seen on the modern UK folk scene... before or since.
I remember once talking to Vin and asking him why he was no longer singing the song, and him telling me that it alienated too many of his regular and potential audience, and it was time to take the tin hat off that protected him from the brickbats. After all, a woman’s “right to choose” versus “the right to life” of the foetus, viz... the abortion issue – the subject of Little Innocents – is such an explosive matter that it makes the likes of Brexit and the efficacy of Covid-19 lockdowns, appear to be items for gentle debating at the next vicarage tea party.
So I found Vin’s response sad, but I could not argue with his logic. Clubs and festivals had even cancelled his bookings. Mind you, I used to think that if he had sang the song without first telling his audience just how many abortions there had been in the UK the previous year (I recall thinking that the number he quoted at one gig I attended, absolutely coincided with the total population of a small city like Swansea), then he might have avoided it sticking in the craw of so many of his audience. What’s the betting that the song at one festival I was at - Cambridge 1985 - would have been more smoothly accepted without his introduction, where he flagged-up what the background to the song was all about.
Looking back, it now seems inevitable that it would all “kick off” a bit in the vast Cambridge crowd, given the near 50/50, male/female, audience mix. And with the vast majority of those females present being of childbearing age, then it was a racing certainty that his song would trigger off painful memories of all-too-recent abortions in many of the audience present (and I include “painful” for the fathers involved too).
Certainly, Vin choosing to sing that song at Cambridge in 1985, did himself no obvious favours. Yes, this long time Cambridge Festival favourite was indeed cautiously invited back in 1990, and although festival artistic director Eddie Barcan always has strenuously denied there was any ban on Vin performing, Vin’s fans never accepted it. They were convinced that his 1990 singing of his song on the same theme - The Secret – had “done for” him with regards to his future prospects at Cambridge, where he had previously been a huge fan favourite...with encore after encore the several times I had seen him there (and as I never missed a whole weekend at Cambridge Folk Festival for well over twenty years from the early 1970s, trust me, for I know of which I speak: there was no single act I ever saw that consistently went down better with the Cambridge audience than Vin... not even the young Richard Digance). Whatever the rights and wrongs of it all, it is an incontrovertible fact that his singing of Little Innocents in 1985, and The Secret five years later, was the factor that severed his link with this festival.
I must accept Eddie Barcan’s adamant declaration that there was no ban on Vin: after all Eddie is an honourable man of the highest reputation. But even a blind man on a galloping horse can see that there must have been a decision to vet Vin’s repertoire after him singing The Secret in 1990. (That song incidentally is available on YouTube, and I believe features his greatest ever vocal performance.) However, there was no way Vin would accede to censorship.
Just what future Cambridge audiences missed by not seeing a full, anarchic and brilliant set by Vin, can be found in this 1999 recording of a triumphant set from him at the Village Pump Festival in Trowbridge. A lovely festival that I attended several times in the 1970s and 1980s...
But let’s get down to the song that is subject to my Dai-ssection, this time round.
Little Innocents, released in 1983, was, at over ten minutes in length, easily the longest song Vin ever wrote/recorded. And I regard it as his masterpiece, even though I take the “Pro choice” view on the abortion issue. But then, I am a paid-up member of the Atheists’ Club, and was not a fervent Roman Catholic like Vin, and so should not be expected to share his fervour.
But it comes down to this: much as I might support a Woman’s Right To Choose”, I can promise you that I support a Man’s Right To Self –Expression, even more vehemently. (For “man” read “person”...and let me state the obvious by adding the proviso that such freedom of expression must stay within the law.)
I think those clubs and concerts that cancelled Vin following the Little Innocents fall-out, should be ashamed of themselves. In fact, they remind me why it is I gave up attending folk clubs, when they had been – along with football stadia and cinemas – my spiritual home as a young man. It is the fact that – despite being full of a majority of members who are in many ways the salt of the earth - they often seem to demand a uniformity of view. For instance, I never voted for Margaret Thatcher or her Conservative Party in her lifetime, but just got fed up with the lame anti Thatcher jokes and songs I encountered in folk clubs... whilst never noting any anti Labour sentiment. The narrow-mindedness of the Folk Scene, is what largely eventually made me quit the clubs.
I recall – towards the end of my time as a floor singer – causing a kerfuffle at a folk club, by choosing to sing the Irish rebel/patriot song Kevin Barry. Word got through to the Irish-born emcee that I would be probably singing it, and he came up to me beforehand and asked me not to sing that rousing song. I recall his words, like it was yesterday, and he prefaced them by saying “look I am of the same nationalist persuasion that you are”. Touching really, for he was a very nice guy... but also diametrically wrong. (I do not know that I have strong views on Ireland’s possible future reunification, but currently I reckon, I would definitely stick to the Six Counties staying in the UK, pro tem... not least to stop bombs going off, not it Belfast and Londonderry, but this time in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.)
But I just think that Kevin Barry is a good song, albeit a parti pris one... and yes I accept that in its time it has been a great recruiting sergeant for the IRA. But I would not be censored that night in Louth, Lincolnshire, and went ahead and sang it.
I take the view that one can admire a song without necessarily subscribing to its sentiments.
And that fact brings us full circle to Vin’s masterpiece. Like I say, those folk clubs who withdrew invitations when he released this record were ... PATHETIC. It is this “closed thinking” that wears me down. Cannot they realise that the purpose of great art is to assail your cherished beliefs?
Please read this powerful lyric all the way through, at least twice. Let the meaning really register before you play it. And then, because no film is available of Vin performing it, please read the words as you play the YouTube sound recording for the first time...
Little lnnocents (A Civil Rights Song) Writer - Vin Garbutt In Roman days the law outlawed compassion A word so rarely heard now with the unborn people's plight, Misguided ways set hearts ablaze with passion, And Romans roared as lions gnawed their problems out of sight. And again not quite so long ago it happened, The Jewish Race were faced with an extermination plot, Men swore and slammed the oven door behind them, Said 'We've the right to prove we've the right to choose Who's human and who's not.' [Chorus] Oh, cruel world, you try to make a beast of honest men, You hand out rosy spectacles and then You slaughter little innocents whose own lives can't defend, If you'd the right to choose would you do it to Jesus again? An unfamiliar freedom now belongs to common man, It's hard for us to say 'No thanks', We're told, 'You can, you can'. We've even won the right that evil rich men always had, It seems true forbidden fruit is priceless, even when it's bad. So let's scrutinise the package deals we're offered, Like anti-nuclear, save the whale, abortion on demand, We may feel we're so liberal and enlightened, Like him who to defend his rights, did napalm Vietnam. [Chorus] One time when starving children stole, the law cut off a hand, In desperation they'd ignore the strict laws of the land. Oh, you wouldn't change the law to make it legal for to steal, No, you'd change the sensibilities of folk to make them feel. But now those sensibilities are numbing once again, Society has changed the law but not the hearts of men, Yet only love and care can ease a troubled mother's strife, In a world that bids a doctor use a back street butcher's knife. [Chorus] Oh, the unborn child might be ill-treated, he might become a thief, I'm told he might grow up unloved, might suffer untold grief, Ah, but I might die of cancer in, say, ten or twenty years, Would their misguided compassion kill me now to ease my fears? No, they wouldn't, ‘cos they've met me, and society says no, But the unborn child we've never met, his friendships never grow. Oh, why must we (at the friends we've never met) point nuclear shells? Oh, destroy the unmet friend, my friends, and we destroy ourselves. Sure, there's ifs and buts and possibles, but they're just not good enough, With lives at stake you just can't say smooth waters might turn rough. Such ill-advice turns hearts to ice to freeze a poor girl's hope, We must change the world that would kill her child and steal her will to cope. Oh, I know I'm just a man, I cannot share that mother's fate, And though I can't apologise for Mother Nature's own dictate, I have to do my bit, I cannot bear those fascist views, And I'll defend the baby boy or baby girl whose death they'd choose. [Chorus] When Martin Luther King said to the world, 'I have a dream', That ignorance and prejudice would never more be seen, The world stood up in praise but too few people understood That colour, creed nor size can change the crimson of your blood. Still they tell me we've the right to remain selfish if we please, They ask me to respect that point of view and not be blind, But I see the rights they claim have slaughtered countless Luther Kings, And in Belfast shot a bullet in an unborn baby's spine. Ah, then, they say a foetus isn't quite a baby, But a baby isn't quite a ten-year-old, it's my belief, And an adolescent isn't quite a grown man, But you just can't choose to kill a man no matter what relief. Without the right to life you couldn't grow to make the choice, Before you're born you haven't got a voice, And innocents are silenced by good folk who live a lie, With the might to prove that they've the right to choose Who’ll live and who will die. When Hitler changed the word from 'kill' to 'exterminate' the Jews, The word was changed but it meant the same, ANOTHER'S RIGHT TO CHOOSE. [Chorus] [after last chorus:] If you'd the right to choose would you end Luther King once again? If you'd the right to choose would you push Steve Biko again? Like King Herod of old are we looking for Jesus again?
Now, only if you have read the total mammoth lyric twice, you have my permission to click “play”. Volume up full please, for as you can tell from Vin’s unequivocal choice of words, there is nothing remotely sotto voce about this...
Gee... whatever one’s beliefs, one can safely say one goes into this song sober, but comes out, if not exactly drunk, but instead knowing you’ve been put through Vin’s brilliant wringer: where he has made you really consider your stance on this heartbreaking issue.
But before we pay attention to the lyric, let us look at the melody. One or two friends have said they find it “plodding”...!! Eh? I do not find it hard on my ear... although I accept it lacks the sublime meandering beauty of the melody of his other anti-abortion song, The Secret. But it seems a perfect base on which to build his house of words: and how appropriate it is that the melody raises pitch to match the impassioned plea of his chorus.
And regarding the unfair “plodding” description: I think half the problem comes from the large number of verses. It is inevitable that by the penultimate verse and chorus, the gloss will have worn off the novelty of both. ‘Twas ever thus: try on for size the 14 verses of Sir Patrick Spens, and then tell me the tune comes up fresh every time...!!
Okay, down to business, with the lyrics. Let’s take the song from the top... the opening verse. Line 4 jumps at you...
And Romans roared as lions gnawed their problems out of sight
That near internal rhyme of roared/gnawed should tell you that you are in the presence of a proper wordsmith. And if you were in any doubt, line 7 quickly dispels that feeling...
Men swore and slammed the oven door behind them
How chilling is that line, eh? In 2006, I stood alone – when freakishly for two minutes there were no tourists – inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz, with just the flickering of the eternal flame at the shrine in front of the back wall, to keep me company. And that very line came to the forefront of my brain at that moment, as I exited to confront the crematorium alongside.
And I thought of young Sophie Scholl and her brother and their White Rose movement... what heroes those Germans were...!! And guys like Dietrich Bonhoffeur and Martin Niemöller who had the sort of courage that almost went off the graph. Just absolute heroes... so much braver than many of my fellow Brits would be.
I am sure Vin would have been of the same mind regarding them. As for the lyric of his powerful, easily understandable chorus: no words from me are needed. And come to think of it, the clarity of Vin’s writing has really made my job redundant here, for his remaining verses also need no clarification from me. Obviously, I can trot out one classy line of his after another, but I would just be padding this article out, for his meaning is never in doubt.
That said, before downing my pen, these three opening lines of the last verse just have to be celebrated here...
Ah, then, they say a foetus isn't quite a baby, But a baby isn't quite a ten-year-old, it's my belief, And an adolescent isn't quite a grown man,
I am sure his Pro Choice opponents would accuse him of sophistry there, but I still remain admiring of that example of his logical thinking... and it is 38 years since those lines first bowled me over...!!
And, right... I am running out of steam a bit... so to start to wind this article up, let me say this...
There are people who might accuse Vin of showing no restraint. But let me point out a fascinating fact that I have only become aware of today, like I say, nearly 4 decades after first hearing this song. And that fact is this...
The Little Innocents album of which this is the title track, contains a full set of lyrics. And guess what?
Between these two lines at the end...
If you'd the right to choose would you push Steve Biko again? Like King Herod of old are we looking for Jesus again?
I read this stunner on his lyric sheet...
If you'd the right to choose would you terminate Jesus again?
Why I call it a stunning line, is not the reference to Our Lord and Saviour per se, (after all, that thought and reference is there in every chorus), but rather, the stark choice of the word "terminate". Suddenly, what seems in the chorus, as Jesus being simply a logical extension of Vin’s thinking, is, by his use of "terminate", brought from the hypothetical, slap bang into the NOW.
And I guess that when push came to shove, and the recording light came on, Vin must have suddenly thought way back to his First Communion and wondered what his parish priest would have said about the very concept of “terminating Jesus”. (Methinks at best, that priest would have regarded it as blasphemous.) And Vin must have realised at the last minute, that tautology was not the reason he was ditching the line... but he was doing so because this line was a bridge - and a word - too far. So he pulled it, even though the lyric sheet with it on (in front of me now), had already been printed.
That to me, is evidence of a thinking man at work: one who does not want to cause gratuitous hurt. After all, whichever side of the fence you stand, there is enough genuine hurt to go round for both sides.
And that fact makes Vin’s bravery in tackling the subject all the more commendable. So he unsettled some of his audience. So what? So did Igor Stravinsky, Michelangelo, Gustave Courbet and Louis Buñuel. Don’t tell me that they lived in vain?
Dai Woosnam, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits: (1) Dai Woosnam, (2ff) Vin Garbutt (unknown/website).