The Ballard of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns at Sidmouth Folk Festival
- Credit: Archant
As the audience arrived for this concert at The Ham on Tuesday, August 6, we each found on our seats a copy of a ‘newspaper’ in the style of the 1930s with a picture of the handsome teenage Johnny Longstaff and information giving details of his life and the background to The Young’uns’ powerful telling of his story.
He led an extraordinary life - born in poverty in Stockton-on-Tees in 1919, taking part in the 1934 Hunger March to London and the Battle of Cable Street, and, most importantly, joining the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
What originated as a couple of songs written at the request of Johnny's son Duncan developed into the audio-visual show we were privileged to see and hear today: the show uses Johnny's own voice (from the interviews conducted at The Imperial War Museum in the 1980s) and a slide-show of photographs, and, of course, the songs, mostly written by Sean Cooney but also using some well-known tunes of the time, including the Internationale and Ay Carmela, one of the most popular songs of the Spanish Republicans.
The Youn'uns - Sean, David Eagle and Michael Hughes - are the ideal vehicle for the telling of Johnny's story: they are also from Stockton and have been singing traditional and original - and often strongly political - songs in powerful three-part harmony since they were teenagers.
Their first song, Any Bread, is based on Johnny's childhood memory of begging at the gates of a local factory: it is echoed in the second half by No Hay Pan (there is no bread), the cry of hunger of those fighting in Spain.
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For me, one of the most moving songs of the show was Ta-ra To Tooting, based on a photograph of Johnny with the friends who saw him off to fight in Spain, 'the lads I left behind' but who will always be with him.
The show is not without its comic moments - two short songs sung by David with powerful piano accompaniment describe Johnny's first sight of a naked woman and the effect of eating too many oranges in Spain because he was suspicious of paella.
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The final moment was the most moving, when Johnny's recorded voice took over from the Young'uns singing The Valley of Jamara, written by a volunteer killed in Spain in 1937: Johnny's voice broke as he was clearly remembering his own lost comrades. This show is a powerful testament to an extraordinary man.