Saturday, December 13, 2008

It Came From The Basement: Lonnie Donegan: "Lost John/Stewball"

If the previous entry had a woman at its centre – sitting late at night by herself, listening to a record – then here we have a different venue and a different attitude. At momentous times like this, it’s good to look at the surroundings and see what is up.

The charts look like they are not just at a crossroads, but are at a place where two rivers meet. It is dangerous, I feel, to say that the one river is more ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ than the other; there is only so much credit I can give for ‘authenticity’ or ‘purist’ qualities, these being at the very heart of music which may well be good, but which lacks a vital something – you might call it punctum – once it exhausts whatever innate qualities it has.

That is why the transatlanticism (thank you, whoever coined that word) of 50s music matters so much. Already on this blog there have been many US as well as UK artists; any idea that Americans suddenly ‘invaded’ the UK charts with rock ‘n’ roll must be put aside. As an American myself, I find it strange to read the story of Lonnie Donegan reviving a fairly casual and homey music – skiffle – and being so successful; but it is often in the strange that something new can happen. Much has been made of Donegan’s being from the UK and making simple, direct and easily playable music as being a cornerstone of what is to come; but staying in the here and now (June 1956), a great deal is happening, and “Lost John/Stewball” (songs about a prisoner and a racehorse) has gone up the charts, amidst movie themes, instrumentals and a song improbably called “Rock and Roll Waltz” – a clear indicator that this new thing is at least worth a dance, even if said dance is all wrong. (Just as “Rock Around The Clock” is described as a ‘foxtrot’ to those unable to jive and swing.) Lonnie’s woebegone narratives, delivered with a voice like cheery 5th grade teacher who wants the whole class to join in (and thus, they do) are not aimed at those who know dances, or have aspirations to sing with full orchestras. It is fairly clear that the teenager (that now no-longer mythical creature, if s/he ever was) is starting to buy singles and hang out in clubs like The Two Is and others where skiffle is played. Acoustic guitars are bought; bands are formed; but this has yet to happen. Lonnie Donegan has his foot in the door and a young man – even younger than Lonnie – is about to rip the door down altogether.

(Let me now also pause and note that Donegan is from Glasgow, Brewer is American, and how nice it s to have them together, just as Marcello and I will soon be together in London.)

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