Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of the traditional song ‘Lost John’ contains more wonderful moments than most artists manage in a whole career. Donegan was a lovably inclusive singer, treating his band and his listeners as part of the gang, as this intro to the song shows: ‘Now this here’s the story about an escaped convict called Long Gone Lost John / It’s got a nice chorus so if anybody wanna join in, here’s the way it goes…’ His band rattle and yelp through the tune and Donegan morphs from a jovial variety performer into a frenzied rock and roller, the recording equipment struggling to capture his rasping shouts.
The song is doubly significant to me. I was introduced to Donegan’s music when I avidly listened to, and recorded, Peel’s Radio 1 show around the millennium. Peel could hardly contain his glee when he contrived to play a Lonnie Donegan recording such as (my own favourite) ‘Ham ‘n’ Eggs’. When the singer was admitted to hospital in 2002 with heart problems, Peel visited him at his bedside, which I suspect was a pilgrimage of sorts for the DJ – Peel once remarked that in his opinion of rock and roll history, ‘Lonnie Donegan pushed the button that started it all’. When Donegan passed away in November of that year, Peel tearfully recounted the visit during one of his shows. He had sat at Donegan’s side and chatted, and together they had sung Peel’s favourite lyrics from ‘Lost John’:
Now Lost John made a pair of shoes of his own
Finest shoes that ever were born
Heels on the front, heels behind
So nobody know which way Lost John g’wine
…which, in fairness, are some of the finest lyrics I can think of too.
In the radio shows immediately following Donegan’s death, Peel could barely hold himself together. During the first show, he didn’t manage to speak in between songs and choked on his words each time he tried to talk about the singer. Even by the following week, Peel only stopped playing Donegan songs because his wife Sheila warned him not to.
When John Peel died in October 2004, the song ‘Lost John’ obviously took on an extra significance, not just because of the titular character, but because of the attachment that Peel himself had to the song and his favourite singer. To me, the song has become a celebration of both Donegan and Peel – two of my musical heroes.
You really must listen to ‘Lost John’ – click here to listen to it on Spotify. In fact, work your way through at least the first CD of Castle Music’s ‘Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955-1967’.
As the man said: ‘If anybody asks you who sung the song / Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan been here and gone’.