While 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.