Coincidence Day again. Today is the birthday of Lonnie Donegan (1931), Rod McKuen (1933), and Willie Nelson (1933). Now . . . let me say at the outset that I am not really a fan of any of them, but they all made waves in their own way, and each represents a strand of music that was popular in certain circles at one time or another. I’ll go in chronological order, and apologize at the outset for brevity.
Lonnie Donegan, born Anthony James Donegan, is the only one of the three who I have listened to more than casually over the years, not because I like his music, but because there was a time in my life when the radio was relentless, playing “My Old Man’s a Dustman” or “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” over and over and over. The most important thing to remember about Donegan is that he virtually single handedly created a skiffle style based on recordings from the US, gave the style a (slightly) British flavor, and popularized it to the extent that tens of thousands of British teens wanted to play it. Out of this fad grew the British pop scene of the 1960s. Donegan was the lynch pin of a musical revolution.
Donegan started his musical career as a guitarist and banjo player for jazz bands in his teens. While in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a “skiffle” break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer’s brother, Bill, taking the name from the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s from the US (American skiffle was an obscure form of country blues). With accompanying music produced by a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan sang classic songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This music proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with “John Henry” on the B-side. The 1954 version was released as a Ken Colyer Jazzmen record, and Donegan got nothing for it but his session fee. So he released it again in 1956 under his own name. It proved to be a colossal hit. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the US.
It was the success of this single and the lack of the need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship that set off the British skiffle craze. There were a few bands that enjoyed chart success in the skiffle craze but Donegan remained the king of skiffle. The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots, amateur movement, particularly popular among working class teens, who could buy or make cheap instruments and use their music to rebel against the drab austerity of post-war Britain.
It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were between 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. A great many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle in this period, some becoming leading figures in their respective fields. How about Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Mick Jagger, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Ashley Hutchings, Roger Daltrey, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke to hit the tip of the iceberg? The Beatles developed directly out of John Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarrymen. Here’s a bootleg recording of the Quarrymen singing a cover of Donegan’s “Putting on the Style” on the day in 1957 when Lennon met Paul McCartney. It was #1 on the English charts at the time.
The Beatles still retained elements of skiffle when they first burst on the scene in 1962. I don’t believe that Donegan is ever given enough credit for the revolution he started.
At completely the opposite end of the spectrum is Rod McKuen who, despite being one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s, has had zero influence on music and poetry as far as I can tell. There is a simple reason for this: it is worthless. How he became so popular is a complete mystery to me. Here is an early live version of “Seasons in the Sun” from the 1960s. It is a translation of the Jacques Brel song, “Le Moribond”.
“Seasons in the Sun” is probably McKuen’s best known song, and it has been covered innumerable times. I have no idea why. I’m sure it works well enough in French for a Belgian audience. When I lived for a while in France in 1966 I heard no end of this kind of stuff, and watched movies in the same vein. I suppose it’s cultural.
I’ll give McKuen enormous credit for making a success out of a life with disastrous beginnings. He was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California and never knew his biological father who left his mother before he was born. He was sexually and physically abused by relatives, and raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic. McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11 and drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey.
To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. After dropping out of Oakland Technical High School prior to graduating in 1951, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion, and over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton’s band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.
In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. McKuen began to translate Brel’s work into English, which led to the song “If You Go Away” – an international pop-standard – based on Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” In 1978, after hearing of Brel’s death, McKuen was quoted as saying,
As friends and as musical collaborators we had traveled, toured and written – together and apart – the events of our lives as if they were songs, and I guess they were. When news of Jacques’ death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn’t have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together.
In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen’s poems were translated into eleven languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone. McKuen said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton. McKuen has sold over 60 million books and his song titles have sold over 100 million records. I cannot fathom why. The best I can make out is that his poetry and lyrics are simple and sentimental, and this appeals to a segment of the population. I am fully in accord with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Julia Keller when she wrote that his work “drives many people crazy. They find it silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class”
The third of our trio, Willie Nelson, is the only one still alive. I’d say he sits somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of musical impact: not minor, not huge. He started out as a fairly conventional Country singer-songwriter, but over the years has become rather eclectic, but always with a Country bent. He was born and grew up in Texas, left to be raised by his grandparents after his mother and father left with other partners. His grandparents taught him some music and bought him a guitar when he was 6, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age 7, and when he was 9, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summers, the family picked cotton but Nelson disliked the job, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky-tonks from age 13, and continuing through high school.
After high school Nelson bounced around for a while, and in 1956, went from Fort Worth, Texas first to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Vancouver, Washington, where he found a job on KVAN hosting the show The Western Express, and became popular locally, while still doing live performances. During this time he started writing “Family Bible”. His inspiration for the song came from his grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, who would sing “Rock of Ages” and read from the Bible after supper. Nelson played the demo of the song that he had recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine for Mae Boren Axton after interviewing her on the show. Impressed by his songwriting, Axton recommended that he go to Nashville and dedicate himself to songwriting full-time. Nelson quit the job at the radio station after being denied a raise in 1957, moving first to Houston and then on to Nashville, joining a long line of aspiring singer-songwriters.
In Houston he sold the rights to “Family Bible” for some quick cash, and it was recorded by Claude Gray in 1959 and released in 1960. It was a modest hit, and, even though Nelson was not credited as the writer, its success persuaded him to move to Nashville, where the song gained him some attention.
Through the first half of the 1960s Nelson had only modest successes. Then he signed with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ol’ Opry. Although a step up, and his records consistently registered in the Top 25, they always lingered in the low 20s. By 1972 his ranch had burnt down, he had divorced his second wife, and RCA Victor was complaining about the lack of real hits from his records. So he decided to quit the music business and start over. He moved to Austin, Texas, where the burgeoning hippie music scene revived his interest as a singer. His popularity in Austin soared as he played his own brand of country music marked by country, folk and jazz influences. He was transforming into the hippie cowboy.
Nelson signed Neil Reshen as his manager to negotiate with RCA, who got the label to agree to end his contract upon repayment of US$14,000. Reshen eventually signed Nelson to Atlantic Records for $25,000 per year, where he became the label’s first country artist. He formed his backing band, The Family, and by February 1973, he was recording his acclaimed Shotgun Willie at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Shotgun Willie was released in May 1973 and earned excellent reviews. But it did not sell well. The album led Nelson to a new style and he later stated that Shotgun Willie had “cleared his throat”. His next release, Phases and Stages, released in 1974, was a concept album about a couple’s divorce, inspired by his own experience. Side one of the record is from the viewpoint of the woman, and side two is from the viewpoint of the man. The album included the hit single “Bloody Mary Morning.” The same year, he produced and starred in the pilot episode of PBS’s Austin City Limits. From that point on emerged the “Outlaw Country” Willie Nelson we now know.
This trio of singers does not exactly inspire me in the kitchen, not least because their musical ranges and geographic backgrounds are so diverse. The only thing that really ties them together is that they were all making a mark in the early 1960s. Most of what I remember of early 60s party food is rather wretched – cubes of cheese or salami on toothpicks, shrimp cocktail, and the like. I’ll go with Chicken à la King since it was very popular at the time, and is not desperate. It’s a common standby if you have leftover chicken. It was actually invented some time in the 1880s, and recipes were available in standard cookbooks in the early 20th century. But it became a defining dish in the 1960s. It’s really quick to make. This recipe is my modification from Betty Crocker – which seems appropriate. A cover of a 1960s classic, if you will.
Chicken à la King
3 ½ oz butter
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
3 oz mushrooms, sliced
½ cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 ½ cups light cream
1 ½ cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
3 oz cooked peas
scallions, sliced (for garnish)
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bell pepper and mushrooms. Sauté until they have softened a little. Add the flour and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to blend the flour with the butter and continue to sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the broth and cream, whisking to make sure that the flour is combined with the liquids. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens. Add the chicken and peas, and heat through. Serve over noodles or plain boiled rice, garnished with scallions.