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Side b of T411 contains a 46 minute section of Walter's Weekly, which includes a contribution from Peel on skiffle. It is available at [1]

Peel On Lonnie Donegan (transcript)

When I was about, that high, it was my practice to go into Frank Hessey’s in Liverpool every Friday and buy three records, 78s. Even then my life was highly ritualized and systematized, to the extent that once a month I made a point of making a record by someone I had never heard of – such middle-class indulgences, eh? And by this means I came to know the work of such notables as Earl Bostic, Thurston Harris, Russ Columbo, and Lonnie Donegan. I bought Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ mainly because I rather cared for Decca’s blue on blue label. But when I got it home and actually heard it, I realized I had picked up a record of great beauty, a view that was confirmed a few weeks later when ‘Rock Island Line’ shot – I think shot is the usual word used in this context – into the charts.[1]
After ‘Rock Island Line’ I became a confirmed Doneganofile, to the point where my dear old dad knew that the best and quickest way to enrage me was to make some slighting reference to “Lolly Dolegan,” a device he used pretty frequently, with disastrous consequences. I waited eagerly for the next Donegan release, which turned out to be ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’. In addition to being invigorated by the song’s elephantine sexual innuendo, I was fascinated to learn from the reviews that it has been recorded during a trad jazz concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and that Lonnie – real name, Anthony – served at the banjo in the Chris Barber Jazz Band, and had done so for some time. Armed with this information I trekked back to Frank Hessey’s and bought the Festival Hall LP, and was highly gratified to find that not only did Lonnie Donegan speak on the record but also could be heard quite clearly shouting in the first few bars of ‘Oh, Didn’t He Ramble’.
Do you want to hear that again?
Definitely Donegan – not a bad title that for an LP, actually. When I got back to school I tried to communicate my enthusiasm for Donegan to my chums, but they seemed not to care much and I expect – as my memory gets a little hazy here – arranged for me to be beaten. I used to get beaten a lot at school. Never learned to like it much, though. Pity, really. Anyway – that anyway is for Ludovic Kennedy – the next Donegan record I got was the EP ‘Backstairs Session’, and this contained one of his greatest ever performances, ‘New Burying Ground’.
My father objected very strongly to Donegan’s high nasal whine. “Why doesn’t the bugger blow his nose?” he wanted to know. But it was that keening, almost eastern drone that whipped the young Peel into a frenzy. That and the way the great man managed to align the words of songs into an unintelligible scramble. As I devoted many hours to transcribing these words, this gave me as much trouble as it did pleasure, and never more so than during this section of ‘Bring A Little Water, Sylvie’.
“Every little once, every once a lordy, Sylvie,” I faithfully recorded in my notebook, but I still don’t think it’s right. I’ll have to give it another listen when I get home. As I collected each new Donegan record, I also sought out his older ones – those recorded with the Chris Barber and Ken Colyer jazz bands. Lonnie played on the classic ‘New Orleans To London’ LP, which was pretty much the keystone record for the British trad movement. There were, I discovered, other old Donegan records to be collected. For example, a single on Oriol called ‘Passing Strangers,’ which was the b-side of a Tommy Reilly film theme, and an alternative version of ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord,’ on the reverse of ‘On A Christmas Day’ on Columbia.
Chris Barber’s Jazz Band with 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord', with vocal refrain by Lonnie Donegan, issued as the b-side of ‘On A Christmas Day’. ‘On A Christmas Day’ was a Leadbelly song, and Leadbelly’s was a name that cropped up pretty regularly when music critics attempted to come to terms with the skiffle boom. “At least,” they cried with a single voice, “Lonnie Donegan’s feeble parody of American folk blues will alert our gullible teenagers to the really important artists such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Cisco Houston." As an extremely gullible teenager I quickly made my way back to Hessey’s yet again and obtained records by each of these artists. Gravely disappointing. Leadbelly was OK, I suppose, but Woody Guthrie was a bit dull and Cisco Houston was a complete wimp. And I dashed back home to listen to my Lonnie Donegan records, in much the same way as many other thousands of teenagers on Merseyside, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were later to cite Donegan, and rightly so, as being the man who made them realize that virtually anyone – although not unhappy me – could take up a cheap guitar and strum something. There were even skiffle guitars with buttons, which when pressed produced chords. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these weren’t Lonnie Donegan-autographed, in the manner of cricket bats. I don’t mean Lonnie Donegan autographed cricket bats – come on! Anyway – still with me, Ludo? – now holding pride of place in my “Lolly Dolegan” collection was his first LP, ‘Showcase’, which was highlighted by ‘Frankie And Johnny’ – still by a mile the most dramatic version of this most dramatic if hideously overworked song. And the verse where Lonnie sings – now, where’s my notebook? – “Then Nellie lifted up her kimono dress / Drew out a little 44 / Rum, tum, tum / Three times she shot him / Right through that hardwood door / She shot her man” still thrills me as much as say Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’, the Undertones’s ‘Teenage Kicks’, or the Fall’s ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’.
About four years ago I gave a hitchhiker a lift overnight from Edinburgh to London and probably changed her life for the worse by singing her virtually the entire Lonnie Donegan songbook. Not a single eccentricity of phrasing nor a single jumbled line out of place. I could do the same for you this afternoon, although I won’t. Will, I wonder, be able to do the same for the Fall when I’m 64?

References

  1. It entered the UK charts in the first week of 1956.
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