Song Of The Week: “Rock Island Line” by Lonnie Donegan

lonnie donegan rock island lineHappy 2015, my musical geek squad. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Rock Era (a.k.a. music as we know it, since it effectively replaced the Big Band and Swing Era and has yet to morph into something else). Let’s kick off the new 365 with a hunk of learning to get your synapses burning. I’m gonna drop some historical knowledge into your brain receptacle — so open wide.

Ain’t no party like a history party cuz a history party don’t stop!

In 1955, Bill Haley & The Comets shocked the world with “Rock Around The Clock,” gaining fame and fortune and causing teens to lose their minds and riot. That same year, over in London, another man quietly — acoustically, even — changed the face of music.

Lonnie Donegan spent the early 50s playing Dixieland-style guitar and banjo in the very popular “trad jazz” bands of Ken Colyer and Chris Barber. During concerts, while the horns and reeds took a break, Donegan and a couple of the other guys would play stripped-down, uptempo folk and blues with guitar, upright bass, and a washboard for rhythm. Someone dubbed the style “skiffle” and it became quite popular with audiences.

LonnieDoneganOne day, while in the studio recording an album, the bulk of the band went out for coffee and Donegan, seizing the opportunity, decided to replicate his live show interlude. With only a brief interval before everybody returned, Donegan and his mates quickly laid down two tracks, hoping they might interest their record label in releasing a single. One of the songs recorded that day was Lead Belly’s arrangement of “Rock Island Line.”

Decca Records released the single in 1955 and it shot into the UK Top 10, the first of a string of folk hits for Lonnie Donegan over the next seven years, including three #1s. Even in the US, where overseas acts struggled mightily to break through, Donegan became the first British artist to score two Top 10 hits — first with “Rock Island Line,” and four years later with the brevity-challenged novelty title, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?).”

However, the greatest impact of Lonnie Donegan’s first single and the ensuing skiffle boom, occurred — like so many musical revolutions — with the kids. Unlike the music of their parents, one didn’t need Sinatra’s voice to sing skiffle; one didn’t need Goodman’s expensive (and time-consuming to learn) clarinet. The only necessary equipment to whip up a band in a weekend was a cheap guitar, a washboard, and a tea-chest bass (literally made out of a wooden chest and a broomstick). It didn’t even matter if you knew how to play.

This simple DIY approach ensured that hundreds of bands sprouted up overnight, playing a ramshackle mix of skiffle and rock & roll with a good deal more enthusiasm than expertise. And from those bands emerged members of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Hollies, The Who, Yes, and virtually every other UK group from the 60s.

All the kids wanted to be Elvis, but Lonnie Donegan showed them how to get started.

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