Uncollected Folk – Roy Kerridge on Lonnie Donegan

Uncollected Folk

ROY KERRIDGE remembers Lonnie Donegan

Ill at ease in the playground of my new grammar school, I roamed aimlessly around for a while, then stood transfixed as I heard a boy break into song:

“Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,

He never worked and he never will.”

These sentiments went straight to my heart. Then and there Railroad Bill became my rôle model. Emboldened, I asked the boy what he was singing and he replied, “A Lonnie Donegan song”.

The dead body of "Railroad Bill", folk hero to many black Americans

Railroad Bill, it turned out, was no longer alive, having succumbed to “a .38 pistol as long as my arm”. But Lonnie Donegan was very much around in the 1950s, and I pledged myself as his disciple then and there. It seemed only fitting that I should learn about this folksinger by word of mouth. Records and a record player soon followed.

Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan, a Cockney of Glasgow-Irish descent, died in 2002. A year later, Spencer Leigh, the Liverpool pop musicologist, wrote a witty and informative book about Lonnie, Putting on the Style (published by Finbarr International). Now a new and far more expensively-produced volume has appeared, Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock and Roll, by Patrick Humphries, published by Robson Press and costing £25.

Now Lonnie Donegan came from a jazz background, and never liked rock and roll. He wished to popularize hitherto unknown American folk songs, not to launch “British rock and roll”. However, he ended up doing both. Many young people became curious about the origins of his “skiffle songs”, but a surprising amount of youngsters assumed the revitalized ditties to be new. Many of the first lot became folklorists, and many of the second lot became rock musicians. Some excellent English rock and roll singers became deservedly well-known during the Donegan Years of 1956-60 – Billy Fury, Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd, for a start. They co-existed with Lonnie, but the Lonnie-inspired Beatles and Rolling Stones wiped him out.

I remember hearing Lonnie at the Brighton Ice Rink in ’63 or ’64. He sang and played banjo and guitar as well as ever, but the audience jeered at him. “Beatles! Rolling Stones!” irreverent young men shouted. “Beetles? I’ll get some D.D.T.” he yelled back lamely.

To the end of his days, Lonnie voiced his disgust at “British rock and roll”. He seemed particularly peeved at the Beatles and Stones being honoured with titles. “Sir Ringo? Syr-ringe, more like,” he once remarked.

Never associated with drugs, he censored American folk songs with “druggy” lyrics. “Have a Whiff on Me” became “Have a Drink on Me”, and the “reefer factory” in “Junco Partner” became, rather senselessly, a “roofless factory”. In doing so, Lonnie was following a time-honoured American Southern tradition. Freeny’s Barn Dance Band in the 1920s similarly censored “Have a Whiff on Me”, and equally senselessly changed the word “cocaine” to “croquet”! Blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson favoured “crochet”! However, the Rolling Stone-type British singers not only sang openly of drugs but used them too, setting a bad example to their fans.

I met Lonnie Donegan twice, in the twilight of his career, and enjoyed two long conversations with him. He certainly knew his stuff – a great expert on blues and country music. Nervous of his reputation for waspish irascibility,   I quickly changed the subject when the conversation veered dangerously near the fact that immersion in Lonnie’s jailhouse songs once made me yearn for crime and prison. I could feel a surge of temper arising in Lon, but switched the conversation just in time, and all went well.

Since Lonnie disliked the Sixties wave of rock music, and poured scorn on the Beatles, it seems a little hard on the poor man that Humphries’ book consists largely of quotes from the very rock singers whose new style ruined him. True, the Beatles and Stones all praise Donegan, but the folk singer’s belief that theirs was an inferior music is treated as a foolish but loveable eccentricity. In my opinion, Donegan was right. When beat music became psychedelia, it became Satanic. How many minds have been lost through listening to such trash? Humphries takes for granted that the Beatles and Stones are gods, and Lonnie the John the Baptist figure. Admittedly Lonnie swallowed his pride and allowed himself to be photographed with an assortment of Beatles, as shown on the book’s brightly-coloured dust jacket. He accepted help from the Stones-Beatles set on an L.P. called Putting on the Style, and took some pleasure in ordering piano player Elton John about, giving the egregious star the nickname “Peaches” (a Peach Tree Man is a homosexual in blues parlance). When in such company, Lonnie seemed to smile through gritted teeth.

Some Englishmen enjoy country music, others enjoy blues, but if you meet a man who likes both, he almost certainly learned his tastes from Lonnie Donegan and is at least 70 years old! This is the age group who wish to read about Lonnie Donegan, and I think Humphries’ attempts to woo young readers by describing the 1950s as an unbelievable “olden days”, when people used washboards instead of washing machines, will irritate his ancient audience. My 1950s lasted until 1981, when our first household washing machine arrived. Washboards, mangles, washing lines and sheets hung on apple trees form a distant background to my life. In the Lonnie-inspired skiffle groups, the washboard became a percussion instrument. Donegan himself picked out the most skilled musicians he could find, with drums, electric guitars and finally the accomplished Nick Payne on saxophone.

Like me, the young Lonnie sought folk music knowledge in Collett’s Communist Bookshop, in London. Here I bought Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songbooks, but could not find the records of these Lonnie-favoured singers. So I knew the words, but not the tunes, until rescued by Donegan (I can’t read sheet music). When communism fell, Collett’s vanished, no doubt bereft of Kremlin support.

I would like to have learned more about Lonnie’s inner life, his Roman Catholic faith belying his interest in Holy Roller songs. What were his politics, if any? In his late years, he played at Conservative clubs and occasionally at Labour Party rallies. I was pleased to find that he enjoyed Pepys’ diaries and the works of Dickens, but what other books did he like? The seeker for skiffle information gets only Beatle quotes.

I am guilty of Lonnie mistakes myself. I wrongly assumed he was brought up “posh” like his first bandleader Chris Barber. Not so – when Donegan sang “My Old Man’s A Dustman”, he was being “authentic” for the first time, using his real accent instead of an American Southern voice.

Sad to say, Lonnie died before achieving his ambition of recording an album of Irish songs. The few Irish songs he did sing are among the most poignant of his career, learned by word of mouth from his mother. He frequently toured Irish clubs in his later years. Lonnie’s greatness lies in the fact that he could transcend the gap between the self-conscious educated “folk audience” and the less sophisticated souls who grew up with music hall songs and Irish ballads. He could please both audiences, and at some point in his professional life he realised it is not immoral to sing a non-folk song. If you like a song, sing it! In working men’s clubs he could belt out “Me And My Girl”, “Tipperary” and other songs known to working men, in the days when men worked. At these times, he appeared to be genuine, the sort of person a scholar collects folk songs from.

Both Lonnie-ologists, Leigh and Humphries, are more than forthright in their likes and dislikes of Lonnie’s huge catalogue of songs. Unlike Spencer Leigh, Patrick Humphries makes several little mistakes when he writes about American folksongs. He dismisses “The Passing Stranger” as a lugubrious film theme song. It may have appeared as a film score, but it is actually a very creditable version of an Appalachian ballad more commonly known as “I Was Born in East Virginia”. Humphries refers to “John Henry” as a “Leadbelly original”, as if the composer of this age-old song could be nailed down to any one performer.

Incidentally, I used to wonder why I always pictured my grandfather Adolf as buried under a heap of sand, his real burial place unknown to me. Suddenly it came to me – I had confused him with John Henry!

“They buried John Henry by the railroad,

They buried him ‘neath the sand”

A crooked solicitor told me that “In Germany they bury people where they die, and as your grandfather died on a train there he’ll be buried beside the railway line somewhere”. This turned out not to be true. Lonnie himself made some mistakes with his songs, and mangled the historic accuracy of “The Battle of New Orleans” somewhat. In “The Doctor’s Daughter”, a rhymed re-telling of an Appalachian “Jack” story, he confused the folklore figure of Paul Bunyan with the booklore figure of John Bunyan. “Casey Jones” gets mixed up with “Steamboat Bill”, but never mind, they are still all great songs as performed by Lonnie.

The blues duo of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry often visited England during Lonnie’s reign, no doubt inspiring our hero. For his version of “Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O”, Lonnie borrows a verse from one of their songs, “Old Jabo”. Both the phrases “Rock me” and “Daddy-O” are found in old folk songs, incidentally – “Rock me” in many blues songs, and “Daddy-O” in a Scottish song performed by my top favourites, the Alexander Brothers, “The Day We Went To Rothesay-O”.

In his final years, Lonnie’s tastes diverged from mine, as he evidently grew to like ultra-modern country and western songs by Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, un-Kerridgean characters both. I knew Lonnie when he was more Brownie McGhee than Bobby McGee, and his earlier songs will be listened to until my generation is no more.

ROY KERRIDGE is a folklorist and author

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