On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenging of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.
My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.
I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.
So long as I post everyday (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be…
Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group – Rock Island Line (1956)
” Rock Island Line” is an American folk song. Ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, it appeared as a folk song as early as 1929. The first recorded performance of “Rock Island Line” was by inmates of the Arkansas Cummins State Farm prison in 1934.
We’re still in 1956 believe it or not. This was a busy year for great music, wasn’t it? Worry not, this is the last one and we shall be in 1957 tomorrow. Today we leave behind the US and cross the Atlantic to my home in the UK. Back in the 1950s a new craze emerged in the form of skiffle which had influences from jazz, blues and folk in the US. It made use of homemade instruments, believe it or not, and the King of the Skiffle – Lonnie Donegan – is our guest today. He took a version of Rock Island Line which Lead Belly had recorded back in the 1930s among others and made some skiffle changes to it.
Rock Island Line refers to a railroad in the US and Lonnie Donegan tells us a long story about it. He begins slowly by informing us that the railroad runs down to New Orleans and that there is a toll gate there. Depending on what is on your train you may or may not have to pay. Lonnie tells the guard he has livestock on board and is waved through with no fee. Apparently livestock is fair game. Once through he shouts back gleefully that he has pig iron on board and has escaped the toll. The song accelerates at this point as Lonnie appraises the Rock Island Line and tells us what to do if we want to take this railroad ourselves.
The change of pace in this song is terrific and Donegan’s vocals gather speed with the music as well. Skiffle was very much of the 1950s but the influence it had would be massive. A little known Liverpudlian named John Lennon was inspired by the likes of Lonnie Donegan and from skiffle would emerge a group that later become The Beatles and we know a fair bit about that group, don’t we? Donegan would fade in popularity as the 1960s unfolded but he rightly claims a place on this list.
Favourite songs so far: