MAY 2015. Teesside folk trio The Young’uns have just concluded a gig in Somerset when up comes Duncan Longstaff with two pieces of paper.
On one is a black-and-white picture of a man. “This is my dad,” he says. On the other is a list of achievements that reads like a litany of defining moments of early 20th century working-class struggle. “This is what he did,” he explains.
Duncan hoped the Stockton-on-Tees vocal, accordion, guitar and keyboard group might write a song about his father. One song? They duly wrote 17, whereupon a show about Johnny Longstaff was born.
From tonight to Saturday, The Young’uns – Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes – perform a theatrical version of The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff at York Theatre Royal, the show now featuring songs from the original album alongside new material and animation.
Young’un Sean Cooney recalls the May 2015 night that spawned their musical celebration of northern working-class activism. “It was really special. Duncan Longstaff, who was in his late-60s/early 70s, had heard us on the radio and knew we were from the north-east, from Stockton-on-Tees, Johnny’s hometown.
“He had this lovely photograph of his dad, this scruffy-looking lad, and as he was aware we wrote songs about real people, with a north-east flavour, he thought we might get one song out of it.
“But it turned out there were six hours of recordings of Johnny at the Imperial War Museum, and once we’d made time to listen to them properly, we realised we had something really special that could never be just one song.”
The resulting show, the true story of The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, is billed as a “timely, touching and often hilarious musical adventure, following the footsteps of a working-class hero who chose not to look the other way when the world needed his help”.
Johnny’s journey took him at 15 from poverty and unemployment in Stockton, through the Hunger Marches of the 1930s, the mass trespass movement and the Battle of Cable Street, to fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
That journey is recorded not only on tape but also in writing. “Duncan kept bombarding us with stuff: Johnny had written his memoirs, but they’d never been published, and suddenly there were these 600 pages, left at my front door,” recalls Sean.
“Then he lent us Johnny’s books, with corrections that he’d written down the side when he didn’t agree with the accounts of what had gone on.
“With all these resources, we thought we’d love to use Johnny’s voice from the recordings and tell his story through song.”
The Young’uns drew inspiration from the ground-breaking BBC Radio Ballads documentaries produced by folk musician Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker in the late 1950s for the BBC Home Service. “They pretty much put working-class voices on the radio, with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl writing songs to go with those voices,” says Sean.
“For our show, the songs and story are very much interwoven with Johnny’s voice. You’ll hear Johnny talking and then we’ll break into song, and there’s a special sequence at the finale, with our voices, Johnny’s voice, a little bit of narration…and then Johnny singing.
“At the end of those six hours of recordings at the Imperial War Museum, you hear him breaking into song. He’s singing The Valley Of Jarama [also known as El Valle del Jarama], and for those people who know about the Spanish Civil War, that was the song that was always being sung.”
The Young’uns first envisaged The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff as a radio series, “but then came the touring opportunity to put together something new for the road, with a promoter arranging dates for us for March 2018,” recalls Sean.
“We thought, ‘yes, let’s take it on the road’, but as we sat in the pub at Sheffield railway station [Sean lives in Sheffield] in May 2017, I was thinking, ‘we’ve only done three months’ work on it so far, we’ve only got ten months to go’, and we still didn’t know if we’d just do the songs, with us introducing them, or whether we’d use Johnny’s voice.
“That’s when we came up with the idea of doing the show as ‘gig theatre’ with a backdrop image of Johnny behind us. It felt exciting and trepidatious at the same time, but the reaction we got was so great that what was originally going to be a side project, diverging from our main work, became much more than that.”
The album recording ensued and then came a show in Toronto where “we became really pally with the team there, and they said, ‘Have you heard of Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage’, as they’d worked with Lorne on Sting’s shipbuilding musical, The Last Ship, so they had a connection with him,” says Sean.
The Young’uns met up with artistic director Campbell in September 2019. “We knew we had a show that was so personal and special to us, and we wondered, ‘what would they want to do with Johnny, with us?’, but Lorne was great, saying he just wanted to heighten it, to bring it to bigger audiences,” says Sean.
“The key, he said, was to ‘make you as comfortable as you can be, and no, you won’t have to act’. Because the backbone of the show is Johnny’s voice and the songs, we’d never thought about the visuals, but Loren brought in an animator, Scott Turnbull, from Teesside, and now these beautiful images are built into the songs and there’s a lot of movement in the show too.”
From tonight, Johnny’s voice and Sean’s songs will unite and resonate anew. “We never strive to make links with today, but it’s clearly obvious,” says Sean. “He was fighting for the future in the 1930s, and the biggest parallel now is the fight to deal with climate change.”
Like The Young’uns, Johnny was a young’un when he started out on his adventures. “He was 15 when he walked from Stockton to London; 17 when he crossed the Pyrenees, but though they’re now seen as huge politically charged events, when Johnny lived through them, he didn’t grab that significance,” says Sean.
“He went on the Hunger March to look for work, and when he was told he was too young at 15, he followed them in secret until he was discovered, and they then said he could join.
“He went on the Cable Street march because he’d met a Jewish refugee. He didn’t understand Fascism’s doctrines; he just wanted to make human connections.”
At 17, The Young’uns made their under-age way into singing in the back of The Sun Inn pub in Stockton for the first time. “We stood up and sang unaccompanied, and it just felt natural,” Sean says. “As we were 40 years younger than anyone else there, we got called ‘The Young’uns’, and unfortunately the name stuck, but we realised we had a voice and it connected with people.
“It felt welcoming, it felt ordinary, because as a kid I couldn’t access music at school, where it felt like it was for someone else, for other people, as I couldn’t play an instrument.
“But once we discovered that world of folk music, where everyone is encouraged – big voice, little voice, in tune, out of tune – this group of people who met in the back room of a pub, sharing songs and stories – wondered why we had never been taught this at school.
“Learning sea shanties that everyone could sing, we found the audience singing along with us, and from that moment, we wanted to keep doing it.”
Twenty-one years down the line, with three BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards to their name, The Young’uns are not so young’uns at 36, but their return to the stage after the pandemic lockdowns has had the same exhilarating impact on them. “For so many people in our world, it’s been incredibly emotional to get back out there,” says Sean.
Even more so, when spreading The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff. “In many ways there’s potential for people, when they see a show poster or hear a story of Johnny, to pigeonhole it in our divided land, but we want to stress the humanity in that story and in what other people did in the 1930s.
“Johnny became a member of the Labour Party, but in the Spanish Civil War, people came from different backgrounds to fight Fascism, from public schools too.
“When people hear Johnny’s voice, there’s great respect for that voice and what he’s saying. It’s a different kind of story, that’s not well known, but…”
…thanks to Duncan Longstaff’s two pieces of paper, The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff is now being sung loud and proud.
The Young’uns in The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, York Theatre Royal, tonight to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Further Yorkshire concerts by The Young’uns: Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax, December 11, 7.30pm; The Greystones, Sheffield, December 12, 3pm and 8pm; The Coliseum Centre, Whitby, December 17, 7.30pm. Box office: Halifax, squarechapel.co.uk; Sheffield, ents24.com/sheffield-events; Whitby, eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-younguns.
Copyright of The Press, York