The Young ‘Uns show, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff, provides a vivid, theatrical depiction of one man’s role in the key struggles of the 1930s, writes David McAllister
The pacifist poet Adrian Mitchell once said that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. You could argue that music often deserves the same description. If that is the case, then it is a challenge to which Teeside folk band The Young ‘Uns have provided a compelling answer with their live show, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff, currently touring in the UK.
Singing most often in the form of unaccompanied harmonies, The Young ‘Uns have carved out a reputation for powerful storytelling through their music, often championing the experiences and struggles of ordinary people in the face of hardship and oppression. This latest effort continues a theme established on their previous album, Strangers, which celebrates the unsung heroics to be found amongst ordinary people.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff has its origins in a show the band performed in Somerset, after which they were approached by a man called Duncan who told the band about his dad, Johnny Longstaff, and the movements he took part in in the 1930s. He also directed them to the website of the Imperial War Museum, where they could hear Johnny’s voice recordings telling his life story in his own words.
As the band themselves attest, “Duncan was hoping we would write a song… We wrote sixteen.”
The result is a theatrical live show – also available as an album – which utilises to full effect the storytelling power of music. Consisting of songs telling Johnny’s story, interspersed with voice recordings from the man himself, all against a striking backdrop of animations and imagery, the show provides a rich and compelling narrative of struggle and solidarity.
From the hunger marches of the early 1930s, to the Battle of Cable Street against Mosley’s fascists in 1936, then onwards to the Spanish Civil War, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is a powerful musical portrayal – sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing – of some of the most decisive moments of the early part of the 20th Century. All told from the point of view of one young working class man who participated in them.
Born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1919, Johnny Longstaff grew up under the dark shadow of the interwar period, from the extreme poverty of the great depression, to the rise of fascism in Europe and the path to world war.
After an early childhood spent begging for food outside factory gates and left jobless after an industrial accident – vividly described in the song ‘Any Bread?’ – he joined the hunger marches which took place all over the country during the early 1930s. This experience marked a crucial first step in his transition from a young boy with no future to an unwavering fighter for his class.
Unlike his comrades on the march, however, he decided not to return home once it reached London. Instead, he found work in Tooting and was soon involved in an industrial dispute at the YMCA, which completed his entry into organised labour movement politics, as chronicled in the fast-paced and humour-laden ‘Hostel Strike’: “Now I did not know politics, a leader I was not it… but now I knew what union meant and I never forgot it!”
What follows is one of the most inspiring moments of the show, as we get to hear about Johnny’s participation in the Battle of Cable Street on October 4 1936, still only a teenager. Noteworthy, I feel, because it concerns a struggle which much of the British left is already familiar with, only from a unique point of view. The song communicates how Johnny’s determination was fuelled by his encounters with refugees fleeing fascism and the anxiety felt at what was happening on the continent. Then, after detailing the bruising battles with the police to stop Oswald Mosley’s fascists marching, the song finishes with a powerful and beautifully harmonised cry of ‘No Pasaran!’
Onwards to Spain
‘No Pasaran’ (‘they shall not pass’) was the slogan of the struggle against fascism in Spain, which was to mark the next chapter in Johnny’s life, and which makes up the rest of the show. Defying the authorities in Britain, where appeasement and ‘non-intervention’ were still the order of the day, Johnny joined up with the International Brigades to fight General Franco’s fascist forces.
The songs detailing this experience treat us to a roller coaster of emotions. There is no shortage of amusing moments, true to form for a band which has a natural comedic stage presence. There is ‘Paella’ which conveys Johnny’s horror at his first encounter with Spanish cuisine (“I swear I was eating cod’s eyes!”), while ‘Trench Tales’ shows how the most amusing anecdotes can come from even the most desperate and difficult of circumstances.
Those circumstances are vividly conveyed in the show. Food shortages are dealt with in the harrowing ‘No Hay Pan’ (‘no bread’) while ‘Over the Ebro’ tells us of Johnny’s experience of The Battle of the Ebro, one of the bloodiest battles of the war. These songs sit along stories of heroism and sacrifice among some of Johnny’s comrades, such as in ‘Lewis Clive’ and ‘David Guest’, and reworkings of classic songs from the period itself, such as ‘Ay Carmela’.
Politically, there is of course much more to say about the Spanish Civil War, such as the various political forces involved, the revolution in Barcelona – described by George Orwell as “the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle” – and why the workers were ultimately defeated by Franco. It would have been interesting to hear Johnny’s reflections on these if he had any. Nevertheless, from the point of view of conveying one man’s participation in such an important struggle, The Young’s Uns provide us with a powerful and inspiring story which deserves to be heard by anyone involved in struggles for equality and justice today.
After the war ended, the band tells us, Johnny visited the Houses of Parliament, where he was approached by none other than Winston Churchill, who asked him, “Would young men like yourself be willing to go off and fight Hitler?”
The Second World War was never really a war against fascism from the point of view of the British ruling class, which was always more concerned about maintaining Britain’s world power status. For the working class and the labour movement, however, it was the continuation of a struggle against fascism which they had already been fighting throughout much of the preceding decade, not least at Cable Street and in Spain. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is a vital reminder that the struggle against fascism must be fought collectively by that section of society which has the most to lose.
It was because of Johnny’s heroic role in these struggles that he was able to answer, “Mr Churchill, I’ve been fighting Hitler all my life!”
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