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A thought on ‘Rock Island Line’

Rock Island LineWhile watching Billy Bragg’s enjoyable BBC4 documentary on “Rock Island Line” this evening, and listening to his interviewees talking about what it was that made Lonnie Donegan’s recording so compelling back in 1956 that it inspired and facilitated an entire musical revolution, I found myself trying to isolate the qualities that had so inflamed my own imagination as a nine-year-old.

Of course there was that thrilling rhythm, imitating the gathering momentum of a locomotive. And there was the urgent informality of Donegan’s vocal delivery, so different from the crooners who dominated the airwaves in the middle 1950s. But there was something deeper at work, and I think it was this: a dominant feature of the song’s melody is the interval between the tonic and the flattened third. The tonic is the note you hear several times as he follows “Well, the Rock Island…” — all sung on the tonic — by rising to the flattened third on the next word, sung with a heavy emphasis: “…Line…”

A little later on in our musical education, we learnt that the flattened third is one of the two “blue notes” in a major scale (the other being the flattened seventh). In this case, since Donegan sings “Rock Island Line” in the key of D, the flattened third is F natural. And that F natural, I reckon, is the first blue note most of my generation ever heard, or at least noticed, and its impact was immense. For all of us, from everyone who joined a skiffle group, whether they quickly found another hobby or became John Lennon, that note was the portal to everything that followed, for within it was encoded the sound, the flavour, the spirit and the soul of the blues, the music that, in all its forms, would shape a new culture.

My theory, anyway.

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Larry Cohn #

    How can you critique “Rock Island Line” and not mention Lead Belly, the person whose version of the song was taken by Donegan?

    April 12, 2019
    • I think you’ve completely misunderstood what I was writing about, which was the effect of hearing Lonnie Donegan’s record on a generation of English kids. I tend to think the people who read this blog already know about Huddie Ledbetter and don’t need a history lesson attached to my little piece of observation.

      April 12, 2019
    • And I wasn’t “critiquing” “Rock Island Line”, whatever that means. I didn’t post your comment to begin with because I found it not only obtuse but irritating. Anyway, it’s up there now.

      April 17, 2019
      • cohnnotb4x@aol.com #

        How about you take my name off your list!Obtuse, irritating:  you must have a very lowthreshold to use these words because someonedisagrees with your point of view.

        April 17, 2019
  2. Grahame Painting #

    You’re absolutely right. It’s the perfect interval.

    April 12, 2019
  3. Paul Wright #

    It’s not a ‘flattened third’, which doesn’t exist – it’s a minor third.

    April 13, 2019
    • You might want to tell that to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, for whom the “flattened fifth” was the symbol of bebop.

      April 17, 2019
      • Paul Wright #

        Sorry Richard, respectfully, but you’re wrong. Fourths and fifths are the ‘perfect’ intervals, so-called because they don’t signify major or minor. It’s therefore absolutely possible to ‘flatten’ a fifth – which gives you a tritone, which was indeed the symbol of bebop. But flattening a major third, which I guess is what you’re talking about here, gives you a minor third; and flattening a minor third gives you a major second. It’s simply not possible, as a basic theoretical principle, to flatten a third – you might as well call a geometric shape with four sides a triangle, or tea coffee.

        April 19, 2019
    • You’ve given me something to think about, Paul. Which I will. It’s a long time since I did any theory…

      April 19, 2019
  4. Put me on the right track thats for sure.
    Mike Cooper

    April 13, 2019
  5. I am sure that this writer perfectly understands what he is saying and his theory may be impeccable however my 13 year old self just thought it was a great song sung by an artist of whom I immediately became a lifelong fan.
    The next tune which gave me that lightbulb moment was “Love me do” by ‘The Beatles’ heard one Sunday night on a, fade in fade out, Radio Luxembourg. So taken with this was I that I rushed upstairs and got my younger sister – already in bed – and insisted she come and listen. I didn’t stay a Beatles adherent as the Stones appeared but I’ll always remember that moment.

    April 13, 2019
  6. Great stuff! But I wonder what more there is here about this specific skiffle “blue note” specifically that made it particularly impressionable? It could not have been literally the first blue note your generation would have heard: traditional jazz, r&b and, rock and roll being three examples of music with a significant youth appeal in the early-mid 1950s and were already around. So it’s interesting to think about why skiffle in particular made this impression. Why was it Donegan, and not Elvis (or even George Melly?!) that became the portal to everything that followed? And is that just a social/cultural thing about how skiffled is positioned as DIY culture or, as you suggest, could there actually be something specific about the skiffle sound that meant it got through to this generation?

    April 13, 2019
  7. Alan Codd #

    Yeah I always reckoned Donegan was deep like that.

    April 13, 2019
  8. andrew jackson #

    yes – your theory could well be right – plus, i’d venture, the influence of johnny parker’s blatant blues/boogie piano playing on humphrey lyttelton’s 1956 uk hit “bad penny blues”

    April 13, 2019
  9. Philip Putnam #

    Thank you, Richard; took me back to Walthamstow Town Hall, sitting in my school blazer, stomping my feet to the Chris Barber Band.

    April 13, 2019
    • Alan Codd #

      Chris Barber in my own opinion is also deep.

      April 13, 2019
  10. COLIN ESCOTT #

    I don’t know if Bragg makes this point on his show because we prob won’t see it over here, but Donegan’s “RIL” and Elvis’ first record, “That All Right,” were recorded within days of each other in July 1954. Both recombined blues, folk, country into something quite startlingly original. One directly influenced the cultural landscape of the ’50s; the other indirectly influenced the ’60s by inspiring …. well, you know who.
    Great piece, though. I’ve fwd’d it to everyone who might care.

    April 14, 2019
  11. Russell Unwin #

    To me the most compelling thing about Lonnie Donegan’s delivery was that it was exciting! I learned that music which was genuinely exciting was good and I wanted hear more. And I did lots more!

    April 14, 2019
  12. Alan Codd #

    A further or the same thought on RIL and Elvis. Lonnie Donegan, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, can’t get over how important that period was. Those years, as the time when one began to listen to music for the first time, and a most incredible ‘moment’ was taking place easily, naturally, and like an inevitability. The more raucous side of it came out as Little Richard, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but with the ‘Hillbilly’, Sun, Crickets, bands, you had the essential elements of Skiffle, a hugely overlooked concept art form, undying, timeless, folk, beat, elementary, natural, compelling – that in his own way BOB DYLAN discovered and made some of his Greatest Stuff out of. By that time I think he was calling it Rag Rock (his music), it was what Donegan was playing with on the first time round. You’re right Richard it’s the timing (natural) of the Skiffle element and the Blues that made this music.

    April 15, 2019
    • Guitarslinger #

      From the department of corrections ;

      1) Bob Dylan’s inspiration came from Woodie Guthrie , folk and American blues .. not 50’s R&R ( his R&R phase barely lasted thru HS ) b) What he called his electric band once he switched over was .. plain and simple .. electric … later calling it contemporary roots music

      2) Its interesting that nowhere within your comment do you make mention of the fact that the Beatles for all practical purposes right thru their first four albums were nothing more than an Anglo – Buddy Holly interpretation / pastiche until George Martin’s ( the REAL 5th Beatle though McCartney is loath to admit it ) influence firmly took root

      3) Donegan and skiffle have absolutely nothing in common with what Dylan was doing .

      4) The main beneficiary of skiffle was the Who ! Later to be followed by the likes of the Clash etc

      Sigh .. facts in the age of unreason and revisionist history . A waste of time on my part no doubt but somebody’s got to keep reality and the facts alive

      April 15, 2019
      • From the department of correcting corrections: That’s not how to use a semi-colon.

        April 15, 2019
      • cohnnotb4x@aol.com #

        Why don’t you post my reply of 2 weeks ago referencing Lead Belly?

        April 15, 2019
  13. Alan Codd #

    Thought I might be in danger of ‘setting somebody off’ by revealing my cherished (theoretical) Dylan/Donegan in parallel moment. But I’ll continue to indulge my fantasies with it, whatever anybody thinks. I hope Guitarslinger has enjoyed listening to this music in his own way as much as I have done. One thing I didn’t mention in my ‘Article’ (On the complete history of Contemporary music), was how severe Lonnie Donegan’s limitations were in comparison to Bob Dylan, and how his complete inability to write music of his own, turned him sadly into playing things like My Old Man’s A Dustman, instead of reshaping again and again this wonderful musical heritage for the better and for the good, in the years of his remaining Post Hit Parade lifetime.

    April 15, 2019
  14. Alan Codd #

    If you listen to Corrina Corrina on The Freewheelin’ I think Alan Codd’s theory holds up strong. The Basement Tapes are a Skiffle Session. The Rolling Thunder Review is a Heavy Rock Skiffle Band. The whole career of Bob Dylan is steeped in Rock Island Line. Both Bob Dylan and Lonnie Donegan drew their collective inspiration from Leadbelly – Richard Williams doesn’t say this in his first Article. Donegan was on a Tour with Holly and recognized the Crickets as a Skiffle band. They had a Common affinity in a submerged and undisclosed Hillbilly sound. When Donegan covered Holly’s song Love is Strange with a better version of his own he released one of the only true Love Songs ever recorded. He made this departure from his Traditional repertoire because he recognized that both he and Holly had their roots in Contemporary music. All this is so obvious from the cadences that Richard describes in Rock Island Line that it’s almost a logical conclusion. I rest my case here because I don’t want to overburden my argument with too many indisputable details. [If you want any further input on this completely self evident story ask Van Morrison. Van Morrison and Bob Dylan have after all played together. I know I’m not wasting my time on this because it’s the plain and self evident truth so I don’t have any qualms about convincing nobody.]

    April 15, 2019
  15. Alan Codd #

    A lot of people on this page are unhappy about the absence of a full explanation of the influence of Leadbelly, and the precise explanation of the formative forces brought to bear on early Beatles music. I hope I can be helpful. Or I would like to approach the matter from the point of view of my limitations. In the course of reading the Comments on this page I have correspondingly made the attempt to update my declarations particularly in relation to the unaddressed issues, and in this respect I would like to present the complete material in relation to this that contains my conclusions on these subjects:

    From the Rolling Gunslinger Logbook

    Chapter One

    I think my conversation with Mudslinger is based on a complete misunderstanding of the meaning of the English language. And I do not feel musically qualified to take part in the further discussion of this subject. My credentials for saying what I say are based on the fact that I have liked listening to Lonnie Donegan and Bob Dylan, and found analogies between them. Chacun a son gout. Listening recently to Bob Dylan telling a lie about his early life, I have heard him talking of being in awe of Buddy Holly, and making every effort to go to a Concert by him. I think the Rock Island Line turned out to be the Beat Train, and Leadbelly was left as behind as was Lonnie Donegan by Bob Dylan with the subsequent music. The mathematical equation both explodes and is explained when you put The House Of The Rising Sun beside the difference between Bob Dylan’s first LP and his going electric. And consider that Bury My Body by Lonnie Donegan was on the first LP by the Animals. Q. E. D. Not to mention that everybody in the 1950s had their own Skiffle Group in their Home Garages. And a band called THE BEATLES, who were skillful Everly Brothers imitators, chose to be named after a group called The Crickets. It’s as Solid as Rock. In their turn The Rolling Stones exemplified Skiffle in Prodigal Son, Country Honk, Sweet Virginia, and their whole laid back approach – telling it as easy as it is. You Gotta Move is arch Skiffle, when everyone puts their instruments down and starts playing music. Louis Armstrong did it, or had done it, in Knockin’ A Jug (1929), Skiffle has been around for a long time.

    Chapter Two

    Ray Charles did with Gospel Music what Lonnie Donegan and Bob Dylan did with Folk, Dylan more than Donegan. The intervening (for BD) accidental Act was The Animals, who stole Bob Dylan’s stolen ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and gave him his ‘wild mercury sound’ a distinctive effect that he had no difficulty in being able to steal. He was aghast – at first – at their treating his Folk material as a sort of Rock Music. Lonnie Donegan was still in the background on the Animals’ first LP with Bury My Body, a track from the first Rock Island Line EP. It was all Skiffle (Folk) in the process of becoming Electric (Rock). [Not enough room to comment on the Humphrey Lyttelton influence here unfortunately.] The closest Donegan got to it on his own part was ‘Muleskinner Blues’ on his Donegan On Stage EP recorded at Conway Hall. He was still imitating American material though (Old Hannah was Leadbelly) and couldn’t have recorded Blonde On Blonde without writing music of his own. Bob Dylan had the knack of putting words to music that he wanted to hear himself. Donegan got as far as creating his own sound version of music he wanted to hear himself. And probably the two most important things were, 1) how much he (LD that is) wanted to hear it, and 2) how no one else was interested in listening to the same stuff. Take away both of them and a Hole opens in Popular Music that could not be filled by anything. Because everyone has wanted respectively to hear the music of Lonnie Donegan and Bob Dylan. I hope I have not infected this page with outrageous unrealistic opinions.

    Chapter Three

    On the Flattened Third. I think that Richard just meant that Donegan was emphasizing Direction. I sympathize with people who lack musical education but still think they can appreciate listening to songs. When I first read this piece (by Richard the original Article) I thought I’m not qualified to Comment on this. But I set this aside in favour of the importance of someone’s writing about a piece of music that actually means quite a lot to me.

    April 17, 2019
  16. Dave Heasman #

    “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance” is skiffle.

    April 18, 2019
    • Alan Codd #

      Oo dear, you’ve just given me a reason to submit the last Chapter of my Article:

      There is little possibility of the conclusion of the Skiffle argument being accomplished in this context. But the first track on Blonde on Blonde of course is Everybody Must Get which is out and out Traditional Jazz Skiffle, with everybody playing out of tune as characterizes the best musicians (the rudimentary nature of skiffle implies this ultimate incompetence). Having broken the ice Bob Dylan is at liberty to introduce Surrealism to the Contours of The Anthology of American Folk Music, as only he could have done. But not in Skiffle: in the Language he had learnt from the Animals. (Big Lonnie Donegan Fans.) To hear him doing it in Skiffle you will have to turn to the Basement Tapes, for which a Motorcycle Crash was necessary. The Advantage this music has in circumstances like that is that it is Indestructible. I hope this will not confuse too many people. All these Comments are footnotes to an Essay I once wrote on The Basement Tapes, and some fragmentary Autobiographical writings that contain loose references to the music of Lonnie Donegan and the experience of hearing it for the first time. I don’t think they are too far away from Richard Williams’ theme. Of course if Gunslinger had not replied to me with what he had said, I would never have said anything more at all. But I only think he was so WRONG because I had not said enough about what I meant. Of course if anyone hears The Who as a skiffle group they are quite at liberty to do so. And perhaps more is known in this connection about what The Who thought of Lonnie Donegan themselves (I have always thought Pete Townshend liked Mose Allison). There is so much in the music of Bob Dylan I have only concentrated on a very small part of it. And of course everything I have said depends on what I myself mean by Skiffle. Can’t help still spotting analogies though. Getting feelings about what I feel could be called the feeling. Informality I think has been said more shortly somewhere. (See Richard Williams, Article, ‘Rock Island Line’.)

      April 18, 2019
  17. Dave Heasman #

    Oh and Donegan’s severe limitations allowed him to swing like fuck on “Betty Betty Betty”, the rockingest British record of the 50s with the best guitar solo.

    April 18, 2019
    • Alan Codd #

      I’ll look into that.

      April 18, 2019

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