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“When I was a lad, Lonnie Donegan was all there was really, and he was everything, and he was quite fantastic." (John Peel, 20 July 1999)

"For me, he was the man who pushed the button that started it all." (JP, 05 November 2002)

Lonnie Donegan

Skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan (29 Apr. 1931 - 3 Nov. 2002) was a musical hero of John Peel's school days – as he was for a whole generation of British rock musicians – and would remain one for the rest of the DJ's life.

Born in Glasgow, Donegan was first recorded in the early 1950s as banjo player and guitarist in the trad jazz bands of Ken Colyer and Chris Barber. Live, he would also perform a short “skiffle” set featuring folk and blues songs by American artists, with accompaniment from two other band members on washboard and tea-chest bass. Recorded in 1954, Donegan's high-tempo version of Leadbelly's 'Rock Island Line' entered the charts In January 1956,[1] becoming the first of more than thirty UK hits[2] for the performer and setting off a nationwide skiffle boom. As Peel later commented:

John Lennon and Paul McCartney ... were later to cite Donegan, and rightly so, as being the man who made them realize that virtually anyone – although not unhappily me – could take up a cheap guitar and strum something.[3]

Although the chart career of Donegan, which included novelty numbers such as 'My Old Man's A Dustman', was ended by the arrival of the Beatles and other beat groups, he would later work with artists he had inspired – including Ringo Starr, Elton John and Van Morrison – and also became acquainted with Peel.

Links To Peel

Peel had a number of stories about his youthful enthusiasm for Donegan, including how his father would deliberately refer to “Lolly Dollygan” to annoy him,[4] as well as how JP would repeatedly get bemused schoolmates to listen out for a shout by the king of skiffle near the start of “Oh, Didn't He Ramble” by Chris Barber's Jazz Band on the Traditional Jazz At The Royal Festival Hall LP:

"They must have thought, 'What a twerp this bloke is.'”[5]

From later years, there was also the tale about how he had once regaled an unfortunate female hitchhiker on an overnight drive from Edinburgh to London with many hours of his own unaccompanied versions of Donegan favourites.[6]

As he explained on a John Walters show, one attraction was Donegan's unorthodox vocal style - the "high nasal whine" and the "keening almost eastern drone that whipped the young Peel into a frenzy”.[7] JP would also subsequently state that the British singer's versions of old American songs contained “a kind of manic quality which to me was irresistible.”[8]

Despite such qualities, Donegan would find no more than an occasional place on Peel's playlists until the late 20th century. The DJ, however, was always happy to recall the performer as an essential part of the music of his youth, including that the skiffle star had inspired JP's first album purchase (the aforementioned 'Royal Festival Hall' LP) and was on the bill at the first gig he ever went to in London (a benefit for Big Bill Broonzy in 1958).[9]

Peel, though, was a keen supporter of latter-day skiffle combo Terry & Gerry - once saying that it was a pleasure to put people like them on the radio. Coming out of another subgenre, cowpunk, they were part of an early 80s subgenre that reinvented skiffle although the washboard remained. The DJ continued to mention his love of skiffle at every opportunity, and was even sighted on the Old Grey Whistle Test performing a number with John Walters and Andy Kershaw.

John Peel and Lonnie Donnegan Glastonbury 1999

John Peel and Lonnie Donnegan Glastonbury 1999

Eight years after Peel helped set up Donegan for This Is Your Life, Glastonbury 1999 seemed to reignite his enthusiasm for the performer.[10] After interviewing and introducing his old hero for a run through 'Rock Island Line' as part of BBC TV's festive coverage, he continued to sing Donegan's praises to viewers for the rest of the weekend, including unlikely comparisons with dance acts Orbital and Underworld.[2]

Back on Radio One, Peel was soon announcing plans to try and get Donegan in for a first session.[11] This eventually led to a live double bill with Half Man Half Biscuit at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. In the run-up to the event, the DJ regularly featured vintage Donegan tracks in his shows, urging listeners to attend the gig and giving nervous updates on the state of ticket sales. A debut session was again mooted in 2001.[12]

In 2002, Peel would see Donegan at his hotel in Nottingham just days before the performer's death:

”He looked terribly ill I have to admit and was in his dressing gown, but he was very perky, as he was on the few occasions when I did meet him ... we sat and had a cup of tea and talked with him for a while ... as we were leaving he was telling me about a television programme to be made. … It was going to be called the Lonnie Donegan Story and he said that in the course of it he would teach me to play guitar. And alas, obviously never going to have the opportunity to do that, but I was very pleased that at least I'd seen him ... a sad, sad weekend when we heard of his death."[3]

In June 2004, Peel was scheduled to compere an all-star Lonnie Donegan tribute concert at the Albert Hall but was eventually unable to attend the event due to travel delays on his return from the Sonar festival in Barcelona.[4]

After Peel's own demise, a Ken Colyer EP featuring Donegan was discovered in John Peel's Record Box. In 2005, Donegan's 'Lost John' was selected as lead track for the John Peel – A Tribute compilation.

Festive Fifty Entries

  • None

Sessions

  • None

Live

(Recorded 1999-10-01, live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Broadcast 07 October 1999. Set details from the BBC Peel minisite, which also includes Peel's introduction and chat from Donegan, as well as 30-second samples of the songs.)

  • New Burying Ground
  • Grand Coulee Dam
  • When I Get This Feelin'
  • Rock Island Line
  • Tom Dooley
  • Frankie And Johnnie
  • Oh Boys Can't You Line 'Em
  • It Takes A Worried Man (Worried Man Blues)

Peelenium

Peelenium 1956: Lost John (initially, John Hardy was played by mistake)

Other Shows Played

(The list below is compiled only from the database of this site and Lorcan's Tracklistings Archive and is certainly incomplete. Please add further details if known.)

1969
1970
1973
  • 05 June 1973: Bring Some Water Sylvie' (LP: source unknown)
1978
1979
1981
1985
1991


1992
1993
  • 18 December 1993: ‘Muleskinner Blues (CD – EP Collection Volume Two)’ (See For Miles)
1994
  • 08 January 1994 (BFBS): Mule Skinner Blues (album - The EP Collection Volume 2) See For Miles (John tells the story of when he set Lonnie up for This Is Your Life!)
1996
1998
1999
2000
  • 20 June 2000: New Buryin' Ground (LP: More Than 'Pye In The Sky' Vol. 1) Bear Family
2001
2002
2003
  • 03 July 2003: 'Mule Skinner Blues (LP- More Than 'Pye in the Sky')' (Transformed Dreams)
2004
Other

See Also

References

  1. See chartstats.com entry for Rock Island Line. This was before the first UK hits of Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
  2. See the full list at chartstats.com.
  3. 30 May 1981 (John Walters). Peel would later join John Walters and Andy Kershaw for an impromptu skiffle performance on Old Grey Whistle Test.
  4. For example, 30 May 1981 (John Walters), Peeling Back The Years 1 (Transcript), 10 October 1999 (BFBS).
  5. 09 July 1998
  6. 30 May 1981 (John Walters), 09 July 1998
  7. 30 May 1981 (John Walters). See also Peeling Back The Years 1 (Transcript).
  8. 09 July 1998
  9. Peeling Back The Years 1 (Transcript).
  10. Donegan appears to have played the Acoustic stage on Sat. 19 June. [1]
  11. 20 July 1999.
  12. 26 June 2001.

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