Not, strictly speaking, the official follow-up to 2017’s BBC2 Folk Awards Best Album, Strangers, this essentially serves as a complement to the trio’s folk theatre tour of the same name, available both at next year’s shows and from the band’s website, the full package featuring a forty-page dossier with lyrics and commentary from the show, a copy of the Advance Newspaper, a facsimile of images from the show, a period leaflet and a poster.
The project came about following a Somerset concert in 2015 when one of the audience presented them with a picture of his late father, the titular Johnny Longstaff. Born in Stockton-On-Tees in 1919, as a teenager he walked 230 miles to London as part of the 1934 National Hunger March, subsequently fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, bearing witness to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 between Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the police and protestors and a chance meeting with Churchill in 1939.
Drawing on spoken word recordings of Longstaff housed in the Imperial War Museum as well as being given access to unpublished memoirs and Longstaff’s personal archives, the band put together a 90 minute audio-visual show featuring the 16 mostly a capella original songs on the album, including a re-recording of ‘Cable Street’ from the last album.
It opens with Longstaff introducing himself before launching into ‘Any Bread?’ a number recounting the poverty and atrocious working conditions rampant in the Teesside of his youth, stealing duck eggs to be cooked in a kettle as “Willie’s mam she were so poor she never had a pan.”
It leads into ‘Carrying The Coffin’ which, set to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’, links to Longstaff taking part in the aforementioned march in search of work and protest at Ramsay MacDonald’s government and from here to the amusing ‘Hostel Strike’, the words tumbling over one another as, through Sean Cooney, Longstaff recounts how, following an incident at the YMCA, he got involved in his first strike and discovered unionism.
Recorded in 1986, Longstaff’s own words bookend ‘Cable Street’ before the stage moves to the Spanish Civil War, first with ‘Robson’s Song’, a brief ditty sung as an exchange between Longstaff and recruiting officer Robbie Robson who reels off a list of all the reasons (no weapons, lice, no drugs for the wounded, etc) why he might not want to go. He did, of course, fighting with the 15th International Brigade, and, accompanied by piano and Longstaff’s reminiscences, the melancholic ‘Ta-ra To Tooting’ details his departure and a drink with his mates before he set off, inspired by the photo of himself and his friends he carried with him through Spain.
David Eagle takes over the lead vocals for both the 44-second ‘Noddy’, a music hall-style swayalong about having to strip off for medical inspection, to be followed by ‘The Great Tomorrow’, Cooney’s anthemic celebration of ‘The Internationale’ and the brotherhood of those from all over the world who went to fight Franco.
Spain remains the setting for ‘Ay Carmela’, which featuring piano, accordion, Spanish guitar and the sound of marching feet, sings of “the lost sons of Albion, the men of the British Battalion”, borrowing the tune from a popular song of the time, spoken passages detailing the tragic outcomes of the battles of Jarama, Brunete and Teruel that decimated their ranks.
The mood gets an uplift as Eagle returns for a 30 second flurry through ‘Paella’, introduced by Longstaff recalling his first Spanish meal, the theme of food spilling across into the rather less lighthearted No Hay Pan’, which, to a spare piano backing and vocal harmonies, recalls the hunger that afflicted the men, echoing the theme of the album’s opening number as it tells of being so desperate as to eat two candles found in a church.
Privation and abject conditions, especially in times of war, tend to produce camaraderie and, the verses shared between Cooney, Eagles and Michael Hughes, ‘Trench Tales’ is a lively evocation of this, reminiscent in many ways of the dark wit to be found in Oh! What A Lovely War. Eagle takes his final turn in the spotlight on ‘Lewis Clive’, an Oxford Blue Olympic medallist for whom Longstaff served as a runner, piano accompanying another music hall styled ballad with a tempo that swells and dips, the sting in the lyric about his death counterpointed by humorous sketch of him going for a swim in the seas of hell.
The second number revisited from Strangers, introduced by Longstaff, ‘Bob Cooney’s Miracle’ recalls how the titular Aberdeen-born commissar fed the 57 men gathered on the banks of the Ebro with a loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef. The river is also the setting for the shanty-like ‘Over The Ebro’, a number about the 1938 battle that inflicted a crushing defeat on the Republicans and in which Longstaff was wounded and temporarily blinded, eventually resulting in victory for Franco and the repatriation of the volunteers.
The last of the original numbers is ‘David Guest’, a memory of the communist scientist and philosopher, the first Englishman to be imprisoned by the Nazis in 1931, who was killed in 1938, the song amusingly recalling how he could have a gob on him when he lost his temper before the poignant final verse.
Frontended by Longstaff recalling how the returning fighters never had a heroes welcome or acknowledgement of their efforts and sacrifices, it ends with the trio’s version of ‘The Valley of Jarmana’, a song popular among the volunteers (the tune borrowed from ‘Red River Valley’), punctuated by a impassioned spoken passage by Longstaff, the final two verses being a recording of him singing, his voice cracked with emotion on the line about the fallen comrades and glorious dead, before the final click of the tape recorder provides the full stop to an inspirational story, brilliantly told.
Artists’ website: www.theyounguns.co.uk
‘The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff’ – the promo video: