Friday, April 17, 2009

Lonnie Donegan

I played this album once during a family gathering. I’m not sure why; I think my brother-in-law and I had been discussing Donegan. That in itself is interesting. My sister, though, said that this has to be the most disagreeable music I owned. Well, I guess it’s not for all tastes.

I found an album at the Centennial Library called The Roots Of British Rock. The album featured an array of hits from the pre-Beatles era UK: Tommy Steele, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Adam Faith, The Tornadoes, Kenny Ball, and Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan. The album, by the way, was really mistitled, because the roots of British rock truly were American – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino – the same as the roots of American rock. A better title would have been "The British Roots of Rock", or simply "Early British Rock".

Rock Island Line was recorded by Donegan when he was a member of Chris Barber’s Band, after which he signed with Pye Records, and all the songs on this collection, except for the first, are from The Lonnie Donegan File, part of The File Series, released in the late 70s. Donegan had 26 songs on the UK top 20 between 1956 and 1962, and they are all here apart from The Comancheros, from 1962, and Lumbered, the B side of Michael.

Lonnie Donegan:

Rock Island Line – The standard-bearer for skiffle. This song was by Leadbelly and it doesn’t make a lot of sense but it doesn’t matter. Johnny Cash covered it, but Lonnie Donegan nailed it. A top 10 hit in the spring of 1956, number 1 in the UK.
Midnight Special – Another standard. A hit for Joe Turner (he called it Midnight Special Train) and for Paul Evans and for Johnny Rivers. The Limeliters recorded a lame version. And CCR did one-two punch version on their Willie & The Poor Boys album in 1969.
It Takes A Worried Man To Sing A Worried Song – The Kingston Trio did this one, as A Worried Man.
Railroad Bill
Stackolee – Stagger Lee by any other name, a hit for Lloyd Price in 1959, and for Wilson Pickett in 1967. The song dates from a long time ago, a story of the ages.
Wabash Cannonball – A hit for Roy Acuff, one of the great train songs…
I Shall Not Be Moved – Only Lonnie Donegan could take a hymn (I think this is a hymn?) and make it sound like a drunken brawl…
I’m Alabamy Bound – A slave’s lament of sorts. I was in Alabama when I was 14; I don’t remember much except being there, and eating at a lunch counter at a downtown department store.
Lost John – Another song about another John. This John is lost. No GPS. This was hit in the spring of 1956. It looks like Pye put it out right away to steal thunder from Decca’s release of Rock Island Line.
Stewball – I am trying to work out whether this is the same song that Peter, Paul & Mary do; it doesn’t sound like it, but it sounds like it inhabits the same universe somehow. They are both about a racehorse, but the words are different, and so is the tune, and so is the tempo. Still, you never know…
Dead Or Alive – Lonnie as the wanted man, the fugitive. Thing with Lonnie Donegan is that even when he is singing about running from the law, he sounds like he’s having a whole lotta fun…
Bring A Little Water, Sylvie – Another slave song, a hit in the summer of 1956.
Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O – A hit in the summer of 1956.
Cumberland Gap – “I got a gal six feet tall” sings Lonnie. “Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall.” He sings so fast that’s easy to miss the nonsense lyrics. This was a hit in the spring of 1957.
Puttin’ On The Style – Musical style hasn’t changed, but the lyrics are about youth culture, not about the US eastern mountain ranges, or slave labour, or some such. A hit in the summer of 1957.
Gambling Man – The B side of Puttin’ On The Style, and a hit at the same time in the same place.
My Dixie Darling – Back to American civil war. This was a hit in the fall of 1957.
Jack O’Diamonds – There’s symbolism here I suppose. Life is like a game of cards sings Lonnie. From late 1957.
Grand Coulee Damn – A Woody Guthrie song. Guthrie was commissioned to write it, and there is a recording of Dylan doing it at some live event. A hit in the spring of 1958.
Sally Don’t You Grieve – A song about death, and I’ve never heard a happier one. There is definitely an electric guitar playing some kind of figure in there. Skiffle! This, and the B side, which is next, was a hit in the summer of 1958.
Betty Betty Betty – Also known as Betty & Dupree, it was also a hit for Chuck Willis, and there is version by Harry Belafonte.
Tom Dooley – This tale of murder and justice was the Kingston Trio hit that kicked off the whole hootenanny folk revival. This version was more or less contemporary, and was a lot faster, and less mournful.
Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight) – This is where he gets silly. The song was his biggest North American hit, reaching the top 10 in the fall of 1961. It was on the UK chart in early 1959. I don’t know why the delay.
Forth Worth Jail – From the spring of 1959 comes this tale of stuck-here-in-prison woe. Nobody cares about me, sings Lonnie, cause I ain’t got no dough. Can’t get more poetic than that. Hey wait, are those drums I here?
Battle Of New Orleans – A history lesson is song. Johnny Driftwood wrote this, and I know nothing about him, except that he wrote Battle Of New Orleans. A hit on both sides of the Atlantic for Johnny Horton, that was in the summer of 1959. Donegan’s version was a UK hit at the same time, beating out Horton’s version by 14 chart placings (#2 vs. #16 – Horton’s version reached number 1 in the States.) Harper’s Bizarre covered this in the late 60s, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did a version that more than respectable.
Sal’s Got A Sugarlip – One can only speculate about what this all means. He runs through the lyrics so fast that it’s hard to make any sense of it. From the fall of 1959.
My Old Man’s A Dustman – This song reached number 1 in early 1960. And it showed up on the Toronto charts in June. Americans would not understand it, what with its references to a dustman, counsel flats, and cor blimey trousers. The Irish Rovers did this.
I Wanna Go Home (Wreck Of The Old John “B’) – The best known version of this is by The Beach Boys, who put it out as Sloop John B in 1966, and tacked it onto their Pet Sounds album. But other people did it before that, Donegan for one, and Jimmie Rogers (the guy that did Honeycomb, not the singing brakeman). Donegan’s version was a hit in the spring of 1960.
Lorelei – Here is where the production goes well beyond the bounds of skiffle: a chorus, horn charts. The song is about mermaid. It was a hit in the summer of 1960.
Lively – A fun song about criminal activity. From the fall of 1960.
Have A Drink On Me – Just what it sounds like. From the spring of 1961. Also showed up in TO, in the summer.
Seven Golden Daffodils – Lonnie tackles a ballad. It’s not all that bad, but it’s certainly not his natural habitat.
Michael Row The Boat Ashore – I never understood this song, but I’m told that the content is religious. I believe it but I don’t get it. This was from the fall of 1961, more or less contemporary with the better known version by The Highwaymen. It is also somewhat less reverent sounding.
The Party’s Over – Here is where Donegan abandons skiffle altogether. A subdued ballad, from the spring of 1962. My favourite version of this is by Julie London.
Pick A Bail Of Cotton – Back where he belongs, in the cotton field. This swings. From the fall of 1962, and Donegan’s last foray into the top 20.
Rock Island Line – The Pye remake. Totally unnecessary.

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