You take CBS and NBC and them kind of people. They have hours and hours of putting Tyrone Power and Ingrid Bergman to portraying some French story that happened years ago, while right here they have John Henry, Stack O’Lee, Casey Jones, and all them kings of fabulous stories that American kids know nothing about. So they spend millions of dollars for all that other kind of foolishness.-- Danny Barker (quoted in Shapiro and Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, 1955)
The Cumberland Gap and Middlesboro, Kentucky
(photo taken October 2012)
Danny Barker was a legendary jazz guitarist. A member of the Barbarin family, jazz royalty in New Orleans. Barker was one of many musicians interviewed by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff for their classic oral history of jazz, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, first published in June 1955. Toward the beginning of the book, Barker strikes a sour note: as he saw it, too much attention was being paid by American elite and media to European high art, and not enough to American folk traditions: “But we’ve got our own cultural heritage here and we ignore it.” But perhaps the picture was perhaps not as dire as Barker thought. When Barker suggested that “[t]hey should give money so that people could go out West and study and record cowboys and Western folklore,” he was probably unaware that, already in 1910, John Lomax had published the pioneering Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads, spurring interest in this material that culminated in his and his son Alan’s work for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. And Barker couldn’t have foreseen that, four years after his interview was published, fellow New Orleanian Lloyd Price would reach #1 on the pop chart with the song “Stagger Lee,” which helped introduce many American kids to that fabulous story (like my mother – it was the first record she ever bought). And above all Barker could never have imagined that, just five months after the book came out, Decca Records would release Lonnie Donegan’s recording of the folk song “Rock Island Line”, with “John Henry” on the B-side. The single would not only become a huge pop hit, but start off a national craze, inspiring a generation of teenagers to buy guitars and start their own bands. For how could Barker have know that that nation would be the UK – and that Donegan would be British.
It’s impossible for me to give an accurate impression of the importance that Donegan and “Rock Island Line” had for British music in these paragraphs. “Rock Island Line” did much more than establish Donegan as one of the biggest stars in British popular music for the next five years. It started a new musical movement throughout the country featuring this style of revamped American folk music, called skiffle. Billy Bragg has written of the twin impact of Donegan and Elvis Presley, each making their influential debut recordings within eight days of each other in July 1954. And indeed they were the two towering figures of popular music in the UK in 1956-1957. Over the next year to eighteen months after “Rock Island Line” entered the charts in January 1956, guitar sales soared and amateur skiffle groups formed all over the country. Chas McDevitt, a leader of a successful skiffle group of the time, talks of an unsourced estimate of 30 to 50 thousand such groups in the British Isles at one point in 1957 (in his 1997 book Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story). Among this youth movement were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, all inspired to start playing guitar in part by seeing or hearing Donegan. Lennon went further, forming his own skiffle band, the Quarry Men. A partial recording of one performance by his band survives, from July 6, 1957. Only parts of two songs are preserved – appropriately they are Donegan’s then current #1 UK hit “Puttin’ on the Style” and Elvis’s Sun single “Baby Let’s Play House”. As it happens, this was the same day that Lennon met a (just-turned) 15-year-old McCartney.
But looking back from an era in which so much emphasis is placed on authenticity, or at least the appearance of authenticity, it can be jarring to see how inauthentic Donegan seems. For one thing there was his name: Donegan was actually born Anthony James Donegan; “Lonnie” came from the New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson. As Donegan was fond of saying, he and Johnson appeared in a concert together in London in 1952, the announcer mixed up the two, and Donegan adopted the mistaken name Lonnie Donegan as his own . . . Except that the story too may be invented. Then there is his affected American accent. It can be very jarring to hear him in a live performance, prefacing “Rock Island Line” with an English accent, and then switching accents for the song’s spoken word intro. Or hearing an odd Irish-sounding “eyes” when he sings about being “Alabammy Bound”.
Home of John Luther "Casey" Jones
Casey Jones Village and Railroad Museum
(photos taken October 2012)
This brings us to Donegan’s songbook: the landscape of the songs is thoroughly American. It includes tales of folk heroes like Jesse James, Railroad Bill, and, yes, John Henry, Stackalee, and Casey Jones. Donegan sings about so many places he has never been. We visit Monroe, Lynchburg, and Danville, Virginia (“The Wreck of the Old ‘97”); Washington, Maine, and Georgia (“Gamblin’ Man”); New Orleans (“Rock Island Line”); Houston (“Midnight Special”); Middlesboro, Kentucky and the “Cumberland Gap”; the Glendale train (“Jesse James”); Indiana and Birmingham (“Wabash Cannonball”); and so much more of America. We even hear Donegan turn Leadbelly’s “way out in California” into the odder “down in California” in “Stewball”.
Home of "Stag" Lee Shelton, St. Louis
(photo taken January 2011)
Well, there’s some say he’s from England,
And there’s some say he’s from France;
We all know he’s nothing but a Louisiana man
-- Lonnie Donegan, “John Henry”
-- Lonnie Donegan, “John Henry”
American folk songs are suffused with place. So it is striking that Donegan adopted them as opposed to folk songs from his homeland. After all, the British Isles were a rich vein to be mined for folk songs that could be sped-up and energized, as bands like the Pogues would later show. And it is striking that his British audience embraced them – especially since the concreteness of place marks a real contrast with the American rock ‘n’ roll that British teenagers would embrace on the heels of skiffle. Early rock ‘n’ roll songs barely mention place names – perhaps aiming for mass appeal by being generic and therefore universal. Places are so often fictional, figurative, non-specific: Blueberry Hill, the Valley of Tears, Heartbreak Hotel down at the end of Lonely Street. The main exception I can think of is the work of Chuck Berry: “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Back in the U.S.A.”, where he namechecks several cities; “Memphis, Tennessee”; “Johnny B. Goode”, where he has the titular hero born “deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans”. But even here specific places are found only in a small minority of his songs, not nearly as much as in folk.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of Donegan and his British public’s embrace of the American landscape is this 1957 performance of “Grand Coulee Dam”. In the clip, the crowd sits, captivated, swaying and clapping to the band as Donegan sings Woody Guthrie’s lyrics about a dam in Washington state. How many of them knew where the Grand Coulee Dam was, or had even heard of it before? Of course, this was a performance by the audience as much as Donegan: the video is not from a live concert but was recorded for a film, Six-Five Special, where the band appears to mime to the song and everyone appears coached on how to act. But the single was a top ten UK hit, so it is clear that Donegan’s performance resonated, improbably enough, with the British public.
What did people like about Donegan? Interestingly, the incongruity seems to have been part of his appeal, at least in the States. In 1957 Mercury Records (U.S.) and Quality (Canada) released an album by Donegan with the pointed title An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs. But in the liner notes, folk singer and writer Bernard Asbell suggests Donegan’s apparent inauthenticity is irrelevant:
Some listeners to Lonnie Donegan strain their ears for faint suggestions of his British turn of syllable, and enjoy its incongruency with earthy American song. It may be a source of amusement, but these listeners miss the point. For the fact is that Lonnie Donegan captures the innate honesty and feel of these plain people’s songs as few American folk performers have done. He understands them and projects them. The national “purists” might ask themselves: Why can’t a Britisher faithfully sing an American folk song with the same credentials that an American balladeer can sing Greensleeves or Foggy, Foggy Dew or any of the treasure trove of Elizabethan love songs recently opened to the American ear by our professional minstrels? The test is the performer’s respect for his song and his worth as an entertainer. In these respects, Lonnie Donegan more than satisfies. He delights.Nationality, accent, incongruity are surface trifles; Donegan expresses the true inner feeling of the songs. Of course, this is just Mercury’s promotional material for the album. What did Donegan’s listeners think of his music? In particular, why were British listeners attracted to it?
For George Harrison, it was the ease of playing the music: “Lonnie and skiffle seemed made for me…it was easy music to play if you knew two or three chords, and you’d have a tea-chest as bass and washboard and you were on your way.” Or, in Hunter Davies’s harsher words: “For the first time, anyone could have a go, with no musical knowledge or even musical talent. Even the guitar, the hardest instrument in a skiffle group, could be played by anyone who mastered a few simple chords. The other instruments, like a washboard, or tea-chest bass, could be played by any idiot.”
Unlike pop music of the day, the music was accessible and welcoming to amateurs – much like punk twenty years later. Harrison and Paul McCartney, among many others, also emphasized Donegan’s energy:
Of course Lonnie Donegan was the major reason so many of us loved this music for he was full of vitality.
-- Harrison, foreword to Chas McDevitt, Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story
Well, there was a real primal energy to Lonnie’s stuff back then.
-- McCartney, quoted in Patrick Humphries, Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock & Roll
In none of these comments is there any mention of Donegan's accent or the incongruity. Instead, we hear of inner feeling, accessibility, energy, vitality – Donegan had them all. . . And of course he had those songs, those fabulous stories that Danny Barker loved so well.