Rock Island Line
Now comes the second Englishman in our countdown, Lonnie Donegan. He was born Anthony James Donegan in 1931 in Glasgow, the son of a professional violinist. When he was two they moved to East Ham, then still part of Essex. In WW2 he was evacuated, like many city kids, to Cheshire. He started listening to swing, jazz, blues and country-western records on the radio, and after the war began playing with Chris Barber's jazz band. When he was called up for National Service in 1949 and shipped out to Vienna he came into contact with American GI's who gave him access to lots of records as well as the Armed Forces Network radio station.
After his stint in the military, he formed the Tony Donegan Jazzband, and on one occasion opened for the blues artist Lonnie Johnson. Donegan was a big fan and took the name Lonnie as a tribute.
1953 saw Donegan back playing banjo and guitar for Chris Barber's band. Cornet player Ken Colyer joined and changed the name to Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, and Donegan and two other members of the band would play guitar, washboard and tea-chest bass during the intervals while the others took a break. They would perform popular folk songs by artists such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and one such song, Leadbelly's 'Rock Island Line' proved so popular with audiences that in July 1954 he went into the studio and recorded it, along with 'John Henry' on the B-side. It wasn't released until mid - 1955, however, but it signalled the start of the UK 'skiffle' craze and was the first debut record to go gold on the British charts. However, as it was recorded as part of a Chris Barber Jazz Band session, Donegan only received the session fee and received no royalties until many years later.
The skiffle style, with its notion that anyone could get up and play with only the most basic of instruments, inspired a generation, including one John Winston Lennon, who formed his first group, The Quarrymen, after hearing Donegan perform. So just think - if Donegan hadn't recorded 'Rock Island Line', we wouldn't have had The Beatles, maybe. Music would possibly be vastly different. Here's Lonnie. Enjoy.
Footnote: Although Leadbelly is purportedly the first person to have recorded the song, he apparently heard it from a convict on an Arkansas prison work gang. There has been much argument over whether Donegan should have gotten credit for the composition (his was a somewhat different arrangement to Leadbelly's) or Leadbelly, or someone completely different.