LONNIE DONEGAN Lonesome Traveller (Sanctuary)

“The thinking man’s Lonnie Donegan”, proclaims the sticker on the front of my copy, and, sidestepping the blatant sexism implied by that statement – what, aren’t women allowed to listen to skiffle? – it’s a pretty adequate soundbite summary of this 28-track, crammed-to-its-circumference compilation. There’s not a mention of dustmen or chewing gum here, concentrating instead on Donegan’s love of folk, blues and country music, covering Leadbelly, Dylan, Guthrie and Carter on the way. In fact, after being gently surprised in my review of the Man In Black’s “The Legend” box at the intersection of their repertoires, this set accidentally makes a pretty convincing case for Donegan as the British Johnny Cash. Certainly there’s nothing fanciful about Patrick Humphries’ booklet claims: Lonnie was the undisputed king of skiffle, and at one point one in ten British teenagers were playing in a skiffle band. Paul McCartney has said that there would have been no Beatles without Donegan’s example, and other enthusiasts include Elton John, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Mark Knopfler, Mick Jagger and Brian May. How much more influential could one man hope to be? And in fostering the notion that anyone with a tea chest, a washboard and a packing case could form a band, skiffle paved the way for another revolutionary ethos some twenty years hence. In some ways, this set’s importance as a social document outweighs that of the music.

The slightly foggy sonics and idiosyncratic subject matter of “Aunt Rhody (The Old Grey Goose Is Dead)” don’t make for the best opening gambit – there are many occasions when these recordings belie their four or five decades, but this isn’t one of them. “The House Of The Rising Sun”, on the other hand, delivers a slow-burning electric arrangement a good half-decade ahead of The Animals, and The Beach Boys had barely formed when Lonnie took “I Wanna Go Home” (a.k.a. “Sloop John B”) into the top five. Striking a blow against this set’s protestations of seriousness, one of its finest moments is “Talking Guitar Blues (US Version)”, a comedic talking blues taped a few years before Dylan brought the genre to a recording studio. After its sparse guitar and vocal arrangement, the huge orchestral overload of “Corrine, Corrina” is something of a shock. Taped in the US under the guidance of Lieber and Stoller, alongside “Junko Pardner” and “Sorry, But I’m Going To Have To Pass”, these songs seem to be an attempt to manoeuvre a somewhat uncomfortable Donegan towards both balladeer and rocker territory. Lonnie didn’t need lavish, and later tracks revert to a skinnier, sparser type. “Love Is Strange”, surely one of the earliest covers of the Mickey & Sylvia song, is done proud, crooned against intricate, pattering percussion and plinking piano. He beat Cash to commendably locomotive renditions of “Wabash Cannonball”, “Wreck Of The Old ‘97” and of course “Rock Island Line” – barely decipherable at times, you can still almost hear the establishment quake at the affrontery of the latter. “Puttin’ On The Style” is something of a popular concession in this company, but entertaining with it. The Weavers-derived title track is exuberant and elaborate, “Times Are Getting Hard Boys” relayed with almost impossible delicacy. “Nobody Loves Like An Irishman” is as playful as it is primitive, but “Michael Row The Boat” is sabotaged for me by a high-pitched keening vocal line, like a drunken Theremin. Similarly, the wallowing sentimentality of blind orphan boy country tune “Nobody’s Child” just sounds gruesome. Leadbelly’s “Take A Whiff On Me” is somewhat sanitised as “Have A Drink On Me”, but then again it’s unlikely that the revered bluesman filled his rendition with lines like “Sell your shovel and your old long johns/You can make a fortune writing Adam Faith songs”. (Apparently Lonnie offered the song to Adam, who rejected it for some reason!)         

The non-chronological tracklisting is either a blessing or a curse. It can be easily remedied, of course, but it does help to disguise how little Donegan’s music changed over the decade or so surveyed. You might feel like a companion volume’s in order (“The non-thinking person’s Lonnie Donegan”, perhaps?) to mop up the novelty items frowned upon here, but equally “Lonesome Traveller” might be all the Lonnie Donegan you could ever need. Either way, given the man’s six (or less) degrees of separation from many of the records reviewed in these pages you owe yourself a listen to at least some of his work.