Lonnie Donegan

TrackAlbum
Rock Island LineDecca F.10647 (1955)
Cumberland GapPye Nixa N.15087 (1957)
LoreleiPye 7N.15275 (1960)
Don't You Rock Me Daddy-OPye Nixa N.15080 (1957)
Midnight SpecialPolygon Jazz Today JTE 107 (1955)
Ol' RileyPye Jazz NJE 1017 (1956)
Lost JohnPye Nixa N.15036 (1957)
Bring A Little Water, SylviePye Nixa N.15071 (1956)
Jack O' DiamondsPye Nixa N.15116 (1957)
Putting On The StylePye Nixa N.15093 (1957)

Lonnie Donegan photo

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Contributor: Paul F. Newman

I’ve abandoned any alphabetical order convention so that Rock Island Line can head this list, for in a way it could head so many lists on Toppermost, being openly acknowledged as a seminal rock record and certainly the granddaddy of British rock. Whether you listen to Lonnie Donegan’s first 1954 version of this folk ditty, whose origins as an American slave song go back it is said to before the phonograph was invented, or any of his later performances of it now captured on YouTube, the vitality and innovation remains. Somehow, the song never sounds old-fashioned. I certainly never tire of hearing it and nobody has ever done it as well as Donegan. In others’ hands it is amusing and exciting (from Leadbelly – and he was particularly indebted to Leadbelly in his early repertoire – to Lennon/McCartney and Little Richard) but none capture the slow build of a moving train and the whining triumph of a sounding horn and heavy wheels on tracks and the rocking and the rolling of it as does Lonnie Donegan.

We can argue all kinds of beginnings for rock and roll but there were three records made within months of each other in 1954 that, had they known it, were keys to the floodgates soon to open; Rock Around The Clock recorded by Bill Haley as a B-side in April 1954, That’s All Right recorded by Elvis Presley on 5th July 1954 and Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan on 13th July 1954. None of them would have known about the others, none would be big hits that year or for quite some time, and none of the songs were the artists’ original compositions. Yet they all had an indefinable something in their renderings that was destined to lift them from obscurity to fame.

By another quirk of chance Rock Island Line innocently contained the word ‘rock’ – because it was a song about a rail road that ran from a town called Rock Island near Chicago all the way down to New Orleans. (Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line was originally a filler track on a Chris Barber LP called New Orleans Joys).

But ‘Rock’ would soon come to encompass teenage rebellion and, oddly, of the three seminal songs mentioned, it is only the lyrics of Rock Island Line that have any kind of anti-establishment edge. It’s the story of a freight train driver who fools a toll-gate keeper into thinking he is carrying tax-free livestock rather than taxable pig iron across his border. Lightweight stuff I agree – he’s not even smuggling hooch or drugs – but there was nothing remotely unlawful or dangerous in the words of Rock Around The Clock or That’s All Right either.

Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line makes you want to tap your feet or bounce up and down or drum your fingers on a table-top or stick them in thimbles and clatter on a washboard or make a tea-chest bass and thump it. It began the Skiffle craze of do-it-yourself beat music, many of whose hits were similarly about trains (Last Train To San Fernando, Midnight Special, Freight Train, 6.5 Special …) though Lonnie himself did not confine his skiffle output to railways particularly.

 

My second all-time favourite Donegan record, Cumberland Gap, may sound like the rhythm of a train hurtling towards some mythical place – “it ain’t nowhere” says the lyrics, yet it was also “fifteen miles to Middlesborough” – but, surprisingly, although it sounds like it’s saying “fifteen miles to the Cumberland Gap” there’s nothing in the words to confirm that we’re travelling on rails.

And I must explain the absence of My Old Man’s A Dustman. Lonnie always had a penchant for the comic song, like Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight), and would insert saucy-postcard lines into serious American folk songs. “Two old ladies sitting in the sand, each one wishing that the other was a man” in the middle of Cumberland Gap for instance. But while I bought and enjoyed My Old Man’s A Dustman once upon a time I’m afraid it doesn’t now make my Top Ten. It’s better than Chuck Berry’s My Ding-A-Ling I agree, but there’s only a certain number of times you can listen to those novelty live crowd-pleasers.

 

In a sense it was unfortunate that Dustman was such a big hit in 1960 as it may have pointed to a false dawn for Lonnie as a pantomime or vaudeville entertainer. Skiffle had died out and Variety theatre would soon be on its last legs, though to be fair his continuing record releases through the early 60s did not switch to comedy and he had several more Top Ten hits. His old style still came up trumps with bestsellers like Have A Drink On Me and Pick A Bale Of Cotton, and he attempted to reach new ground with The Party’s Over in 1962. This was a hit but the title was ominous and it was his last year in the charts.

Many years would pass before he was rightly revered, not only as the King of Skiffle but as an elder statesman of British Rock. In that capacity, and performing right up to the end, he died in 2002 aged 71.

 

 

Anthony James “Lonnie” Donegan MBE (1931-2002)

“Lonnie was a great live act to watch. I loved him, used to go to a lot of his shows. He was great. Rock Island Line, Lost John – I mean, you hear that in the middle of all those Dickie Valentines and it’s just very, very good. It was like hearing Elvis for the first time – only before. Lonnie was a giant! I ran into him in clubs sometimes, and I’d always go up and have a chat. ‘You were it, man. You were the one!’ I paid homage!” Paul McCartney

“Lonnie Donegan had a much bigger influence on British rock bands than he was ever given credit for. He had a great voice, a lot of energy and sang great songs. He was a big hero of mine.” George Harrison

“Donegan didn’t invent rock’n’roll; he didn’t even invent skiffle. Those honours rest elsewhere. Like Elvis, he was the Great Populariser. Presley and Donegan, working a few days apart in July 1954, were the heralds of a new age. Social pressures that had been building up since the end of the war were coming to a head. In Britain, the emergent teenagers were desperate to escape the staid world of their parents. Rock Island Line was the hit that breached the walls, allowing the mighty teen army to pour through and remake their world. After hearing Lonnie Donegan, their lives would never be the same again.” Billy Bragg

“I love performing – I love getting out of myself and singing. I love that world that you have to enter to sing a song well. My style, the way I sing, and the freedom that I always try and sing with, was inspired by Lonnie Donegan. When I saw him sing I just thought ‘Wow, he’s just letting himself go, being totally true to how he was feeling at that moment’. He never ever cheated it, and I just try and do the same.” Roger Daltrey

“When Lonnie Donegan started coming out with versions of Leadbelly songs that’s when it all kicked in for me. See, Donegan never properly received his due. He was a great singer. Also, he’s underestimated as a guitarist.He could do more with three chords than most people could do with 50 chords. America never produced anything that was close to Donegan. Nothing that I can find anyway.” Van Morrison

 

Lonnie Donegan Discography (45cat)

Lonnie Donegan Fan Club Magazines

Lonnie Donegan discussion forum

A Tribute to Lonnie Donegan

John Peel meets Lonnie Donegan who plays Rock Island Line in a tent at Glastonbury 1999

Lonnie Donegan obituaries

Peter Donegan’s website

“Jim Carter: Lonnie Donegan and Me” (Artisan Pictures 2016)

“Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock & Roll” by Patrick Humphries

Lonnie Donegan biography (Wikipedia)

Paul F. Newman is a writer, editor and astrologer, and once part of a surf band. See his published books on Amazon here.

TopperPost #509

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Mar 26, 2016

    What a good article! Every major British act up to probably Queen started in a skiffle band. The Beatles. The Who. The Stones. Bowie. And on and on and on. It really is, no Lonnie no British rock. As you say, he’s the great populariser.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 27, 2016

    Paul, thanks for this superb piece on a pivotal figure in the history of British rock music. Will add a comment which a friend of his made about Rory Gallagher shortly after his death – ‘Musically, two of the people he referred to most were Lonnie Donegan and Muddy Waters’. Not bad company, eh?

  3. Peter Viney
    Mar 30, 2016

    Brilliant article, Paul. Another major Lonnie Donegan fan of note is Van Morrison. They recorded “The Skiffle Sessions” live in Belfast in 1998 with Chris Barber on bass and trombone, and Dr John on two tracks. Try ‘Alabamy Bound.’ That brought it all back to his origins, as banjo and guitar player for Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, where the skiffle section was an interval in the band’s shows. There are various Chris Barber records from that era with Lonnie Donegan. I have everything in Paul’s list. My two “What no?” records are Pick A Bale of Cotton which has had two generations of kids in our family dancing madly, and Battle of New Orleans with its comedy intro. The original by Johnny Horton might be definitive, but I didn’t know that until twenty years after I bought Lonnie’s version, and I still like it better.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Jun 21, 2016

    Very, very well put Paul. The early British rock’n’roll scene is often denigrated – and I, also, have sometimes been guilty – but Donegan was a giant among the pygmies around on our shores at the time. Not only did he encourage a DIY musical attitude to Brit youth – and skiffle was a lot easier to play than most forms of music – but he also introduced a whole generation to American roots music including blues. And I would tell a certain Mr Bragg that he’s got it wrong. To all intents and purposes Lonnie DID invent skiffle. The fact that it had previously been used for drumming up rent in the poorer parts of the US is entirely fortuitous. It may have been someone else (like Ken Colyer) who came up with the word for what a few like Donegan were doing, but it was Lonnie who picked it up and ran with it. And ran, and ran …

  5. Roger Rettig
    May 4, 2018

    This is maybe the best summation I have ever seen of Donegan’s importance. Well written and perceptive with some good quotes to underline just how much we owe to this musical giant.

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