Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Singin' Thistle: Lonnie Donegan: "The Battle of New Orleans"

It is with a little trepidation that I arrive at the end of the 50s; a simple, swell time was mostly had by all and while not everything was, shall we say, pleasant, it is without doubt the decade that has had the most nostalgia attached to it of the 20th century.

History has a longer memory than that, though, and it is weirdly fitting that the last song I write about for this decade looks back to the War of 1812, to its last great fight, the Battle of New Orleans. I say fitting as it was a war between the British and the Americans (with the not-quite-a-nation-just-yet Canada haplessly in the middle, though perhaps not so much as hapless as stuck) - the UK charts were beginning to look like a war between these same two foes, songs being covered here and there, homegrown stars such as Cliff and Marty and Adam (I will get to him, dear readers) doing battle with Yankee ne'er-do-wells, with what I can only call interesting results. (Indeed, the results of this war will only become apparent once a certain band emerges, but that's not for two long years yet.)

Stepping smartly into this field of battle was one Lonnie Donegan - yes, the skiffle fad was over but nothing could keep Lonnie from having hits (indeed I can imagine nothing could keep Lonnie from music, period). His "The Battle of New Orleans" has a certain...something to it though that is different from the original song by American Johnny Horton. Whereas Horton is ornery and military and almost makes you wish you were there, Donegan's version is...well this is his spoken intro in part:

"This is a song about a fit between Yankees and them there English people...in which the British came off rather ignominiously...because they never done no good no how, ciao."

He then relates the tale of the "Bloomin' British" and how they were defeated by the Americans with what I can only call great relish. As a Scotsman he has every right to sing about the English defeat this way, and evidently enough British people in general seemed to think it only fair, more than tolerating his 'ha hiddle-dee-dee's and maybe being a little distracted by Joe Meek's production (yes, we are back to him again), which takes this stern march and makes it more into a dub reggae skank about wily natives showing up the supposedly better opposition. (Sadly I won't be getting back to Scotland for a while here, but when I do it will be with someone who surely knew Donegan's work by heart.)

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