Charting The Blues - The Donegan Phenomenon
Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line," is arguably the first "UK Blues Chart Single," reaching no. 8 on first entry in January 1956, with re-entries at 16 and 19. Blues in this era was what we'd probably now call Folk Blues, which was marketed in the UK as "Skiffle," an all-encompassing term for both Black and White Country Blues, usually played with minimal instrumentation – the classic line-up was acoustic guitar, tea-chest bass and washboard. The style's prime purveyor was guitarist and banjo-player Anthony Donegan (named after his hero, Lonnie Johnson) who would perform with a small group in the intervals of Chris Barber's Jazz Band.
This, and many other titles recorded by Lonnie, often released under the sketchy credits "Trad. arr Donegan," came from the songbook of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who was "discovered" by American folklorist John Lomax. Twice imprisoned, and reputedly twice pardoned on the strength of his musical performance, Lead Belly was presented as a kind of 'Negro Troubadour' and achieved fame with predominantly white audiences in the States, in the nineteen-thirties and forties.
Ledbetter, like Donegan, was an avid collector and re-arranger of songs, and many titles attributed to him were no doubt acquired either by himself or Lomax in their visits to State Farms and Penitentiaries. The earliest recorded version of "Rock Island Line" gives credit to Clarence Wilson, who was a member of the Rock Island Coloured Booster Quartet, though Lomax, who had also recorded it at the Tucker Prison Farm in Arkansas, usually attributed it to Kelly Pace, an inmate of Cumins State Prison Farm.
Miffed at the success of Donegan's version, John's son Alan wrote: "John A. Lomax recorded this song at the Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, in 1934 from its convict composer, Kelly Pace. The Negro singer, Lead Belly, heard it, rearranged it in his own style, and made commercial phonograph recordings of it in the 1940s. One of these recordings was studied and imitated phrase by phrase, by a young English singer of American folk songs, who subsequently recorded it for an English company. The record sold in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and England, and this Arkansas Negro convict song, as adapted by Leadbelly, was published as a personal copyright, words and music, by someone whose contact with the Rock Island Line was entirely through the grooves of a phonograph record."
In fact, Lonnie and his band had only taken a standard session fee for the recording, but by registering the UK copyright in his name, Donegan received all the publishing royalties. The b-side was another Lead Belly number, “John Henry,” and the disc launched the UK's Skiffle Craze, which by George Harrison's own admission (and much to Donegan's chagrin) gave birth to the Beatles – both George and Paul McCartney were members of the Liverpool chapter of the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Club.
Recorded at the end of a session, with only Beryl Bryden's washboard and Chris Barber's loosely-jammed bass as accompaniment, Lonnie's “Rock Island Line” isn't entirely the soulless copy that Alan Lomax implies. It has its own energy and vitality, and whatever Donegan's faults, he was a charismatic and engaging entertainer. He went on to achieve an astonishing thirty-four top 30 UK Hits, and there's certainly Blues a-plenty among his many recordings.
His follow-up Decca single featured“Digging My Potatoes” which had been recorded by Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim and Washboard Sam, coupled with “Bury My Body” based on the Josh White version. Unfortunately the BBC banned “Digging My Potatoes” as too suggestive, and it failed to chart, so these cuts and the previous two were lumped together on an E.P.
Donegan then moved to the Pye label, quitting Barber's Jazz band, and recorded Leadbelly's “Stewball” (which is not the Woody Guthrie song of the same name, nor the Peter Paul & Mary ditty.) Backed with Leadbelly's “Lost John,” both were credited “Trad. Arr. Donegan,” and “Stewball” made no. 27, but when the disc was flipped, “Lost John” made it all the way to number 2.
His following “Skiffle Session” EP, which still featured Chris Barber on bass, included Leadbelly's prison escape song “Ol' Riley” and a cover of the Woody Guthrie version of “Stackalee,” (also recorded by various artists as Stagolee, Stack O'Lee and Stagger Lee,) sung this time by Lonnie's lead guitarist Dick Bishop. The EP reached a respectable no. 20.
His next single was Lead Belly's cotton-picking song, “Bring A Little Water Sylvie” (variously credited as 'Lebetter/Donegan,' 'Trad. Arr Donegan,' and 'Arranged By Lonnie Donegan') coupled with Woody Guthrie's “Dead or Alive,” which reached no. 7, and (on re-entry) no. 30.
The “Lonnie Donegan Showcase” LP made 26 in the charts, and included Leroy Carr's “How Long, How Long Blues,” “I Shall Not Be Moved” a spiritual which had been recorded by Blind Roosevelt Graves and Charley Patton, and “I'm Alabammy Bound” and “Frankie & Johnny” from Lead Belly's repertoire. Music critic Bruce Eder describes the record as “the first great Blues album to come out of England," praise indeed.
Donegan's string of hits continued unabated from January 1956 through to August 1962, although later in his career he began to derive more inspiration from Woody Guthrie than Lead Belly. Though “Cumberland Gap” was a traditional Appalachian folk song, previously recorded by Guthrie, Donegan again took the liberty of claiming full composing credits, which must have served him well when his version topped the UK charts in 1957.
He had later successes with comic songs such as “Puttin' On The Style,” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)” and another number 1 with the live recording of “My Old Man's A Dustman,” based on a WWI song with 'new words and music by L. Donegan & P. Buchanan' but he didn't get any more Blues into the charts until his 1961 recording of “Have A Drink On Me.”
First laid down in 1927 by Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers, the song was recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929 under the title “Cocaine Habit Blues,” and again by Lead Belly in 1934, as “Take A Whiff On Me,” when it was registered to Ledbetter and Lomax. This time Lonnie and his manager generously shared the composing credits, having only written “additional lyrics” for Donegan's sanitised version, which excised references to drugs and wife-beating, and replaced them with a story about gold prospecting and oil drilling.
It made a number 8 for Lonnie, and only his very last hit single – a cover of the old work song “Pick A Bale Of Cotton” - brought him back once more to Lead Belly's repertoire. By this time, it seems he was too tired to even stake a claim to the composing credits. But if it hadn't been for Lonnie, and the encouragement of Chris Barber, it's unlikely that this style of Folk Blues would have been heard at all in the UK, let alone attained such surprising popularity, or been such a great influence on British hit-makers to come.
© 2017 Stevie King for the British Blues Archive