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About Daze in a Life
On July 13, 1954, the Chris Barber jazz band went into the studio to record four songs from the repertoire of the band’s banjo-player, among them a song the folklorist John A. Lomax had recorded at the Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, in 1934 from its convict composer, Kelly Pace. Lomax, and his son, Alan, had rescued the 12-string guitar-player, Huddie Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”), from another prison farm, Angola, in 1934, and he recorded his own version of the song.
In 1951, my friend and occasional drinking companion, George Melly, recorded a rather different version of the song with three members of Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band, and it came out as a 78rpm single.
One Sunday morning, I was tuned into to the BBC Light Programme (forerunner of today’s Radio 2) listening to the gramophone record programme presented by Christopher Stone, who had pioneered what later became known as the disc jockey format back in 1927. Most of Stone’s choices were fairly bland, but one record he played fairly pinned my ears back.
It was one song from that July 1954 session, now out as a single and credited to the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group: Rock Island Line.
Click on these buttons to play, pause, or stop playing a mix of the Kelly Pace, Leadbelly, and Lonnie Donegan versions.
In those days, I was a working journalist on a trade paper based in Fleet Street, as also was the Melody Maker, and we all used to meet in an Irish pub opposite my office and talk about jazz and all matters musical.
We argued a long time about Lonnie Donegan. He was an obvious fraud, a Scots-Irishman with a Cockney accent, who (in Alan Lomax’s later judgement), was “someone whose contact with the Rock Island Line was entirely through the grooves of a phonograph record”.
But where we differed was what it meant to British music. I was in a minority of one in believing it was highly significant. I’d already started up my own skiffle group, inspired more by the banjo-playing atomic physicist, Professor John Hasted, than by Donegan’s nasal twang, and we drew huge crowds under the bridge at Walton-on-Thames, where I’d also started one of the country’s first folk clubs, at the Swan public house. We mixed traditional English tunes, like The Nutting Girl and Blow Away the Morning Dew (recordings of which can be found in the BBC archives), with Cumberland Gap and Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-Oh (the latter not a rock song, but a banjo tune from the repertoire of Uncle Dave Macon).
My best buddy at the time, Jeff Smith, was chief sub on MM, and he was scathing in his dismissal of my theories. “You’re talking like a Hampstead intellectual,” he said. “You don’t live in Hampstead, and you’re not an intellectual.”
He took a pull from his pint. “But it sounds like a great piece. You write it, and we’ll publish it.”
I did. And he did. They paid me £5. It came out, with a banner on the front page (“Skiffle won’t die”) and a full-page piece inside. So began a relationship with the paper which lasted nearly a quarter of a century. I outlasted four editors, and the last time I appeared in its pages I had written the main folk, jazz, and rock features, plus an interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom I’d visited after covering the Rolling Stones in Frankfurt for Let It Rock magazine.
Melody Maker wasn’t the beginning of my music writing. When I was a cub reporter on the Marylebone Record, I’d done a feature on the Humphrey Lyttleton traditional jazz club and the modern jazz Feldman Club, both of which occupied premises on the north side of Oxford Street on subsequent nights. I’d also reviewed classical concerts for Novello’s Musical Opinion magazine, and done occasional pieces for John Rety’s Soho-based Intimate Review little magazine.
But the MM gave me my launch pad, allowing me to indulge my eclectic musical tastes. (“I know you,” said a musician I met some years later in Houston, Texas. “You like all kinds of shit.”)
Fast-forward 50 years, and I’d moved to Bradford, home to the Topic, the world’s longest-surviving folk club. In 2007, I was asked by Tony Earnshaw of the city’s National Media Museum to curate a programme of “all kinds of shit” to celebrate my half-century.
A lot of the movies I wanted to include weren’t available (no 200 Motels, no Alice’s Restaurant, no Blow-Up, no Zabriskie Point), though they could be bought in any record shop. Since the Media Museum is an educational establishment, however, I’d be permitted to play extracts from DVDs, so I assembled a weekly compilation of my “greatest hits”, often re-editing them with associated images – a coffin draped in the Union Jack to point up the moral of Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding, for instance. An audio interview with Jim Morrison played over scenes of the Isle of Wight Festival where it was recorded.
I called the series Daze in a Life. Some of the clips are on this page, with acknowledgements to the musical giants in whose shadow I live to this day. Enjoy!
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