Somewhere Before the Rainbow
Screening Room patrons who saw Judy, set in 1969, and can recall her Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated prime may have experienced a glint of recognition at the name “Lonnie”—a guitarist/singer ready to take the stage in the film’s final scene.
And for more than just 1959’s silly little novelty song, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?”
That’s Glasgow-born Lonnie Donegan who, on July 13, 1954, at the age of 23, recorded “Rock Island Line,” one of numerous songs from the American South that he picked up from records brought home by his older brother who fought alongside African-American soldiers in WWII.
At the time most all musical acts were all-purpose big bands, mostly jazz and brass and vocalists, but with a few guitars, fiddles, and banjos sprinkled in. Donegan was in the latter group when he took a slap-fiddler (stand-up bass) and a washboard percussionist with him to center stage during the band’s intermission and began playing songs of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and others.
It was an immediate sensation. When asked what it was, he called it “skiffle,” which he knew as an American word for jazz derived from blues, ragtime, or folk. Due to the popularity of his short sets, it soon became a UK word for music by a few band members while the rest took intermission.
But not for long, because audiences were showing more interest in it than in the big bands. More to the point, young guys all over Britain starting picking up guitars and forming bands. By the time Lennon met McCartney, “skiffle” meant garage band.
George Harrison is often quoted saying, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles.” As Billy Bragg, yet another Brit who took up guitar under Donegan’s influence, tells us, the full quote is far more revealing:
“If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”
Bragg offers a full history of this musical evolution all the way from the writing of “Rock Island Line” to what we Americans call “the British Invasion” in his 2017 book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. His performance on the page is as compelling as on a stage, and you’ll be left wanting more.
All of which makes the final scene of Judy as ironic as it is tragic. Most everyone leaves the Screening Room moved by Renee Zellweger’s performance, and the verdict is nearly unanimous: “Wonderful film!” and “So sad.”
By the door, saying goodnight, I simply agree on both counts, as their departure is hardly the time to take them on a tangent. But I’m almost rueful at seeing a film about a superstar’s trajectory into ruin end with a scene with a largely forgotten performer, all smiles, who triggered the careers of at least three-fourths of the inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ironically, Lonnie Donegan himself is not one of them.
However, that is Donegan, circa 1953, in the middle of the photo on the cover of Bragg’s book.