By the end of my first listen to the new album from the Young’uns, ‘The ballad of Johnny Longstaff’, I was in floods of tears. Given five star ratings in both The Guardian and Mojo, ‘The ballad of’ is an emotive, historical, tour-de-force project which tells the true story of one man’s adventure from begging on the streets in the North of England to fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a superb piece of work.
“In May of 2015, when we were on tour and starting to think about our next album, a man, Duncan Longstaff, approached us after a show with a picture of a scruffy teenager, his dad, and a sheet about the life that he’d lived. The teenager in the picture turned out to be Johnny Longstaff” says one third of the Young’uns Sean Cooney. Intended to make a connection between his dad, the band, and Stockton, it turned out to be Johnny’s life, rather than his birth, which proved most interesting to Sean; “Like us Johnny had come from Stockton on Tees and as a historian I found that interesting. What I found most interesting though was the story of Johnny’s life which was so incredible and powerful; it turned out that he had lived through some of the most defining moments of working class history in the 20th century”.
Initially interested in writing a song in tribute to Johnny, the more research Sean conducted, the more his reverence for the man grew and the greater his source material. “Duncan, and the Longstaff family, were amazing in providing access to Johnny’s memoirs and old record books. There were journals to read, pictures to look at, as well as these incredible recordings Johnny had made for the Imperial War Museum’s archive where he told the story of his life; I couldn’t believe how much this man had achieved, and what he had fought against. This was the tale of a Northern boy trapped by mass unemployment and poverty, a teenager willing to join Stockton to London Hunger Marches, and a man who ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War. And he did all of this before the age of 19.”
Profoundly moved by the six hours of Imperial War Museum recordings, Sean decided to tell the life of Johnny as a full album, incorporating his voice into the proceedings; “by hearing Johnny’s voice, this deep, warm, funny, Teesside accent, we all came to the agreement that we wanted to use his voice as a narrator of the piece”. A fine production technique, Johnny’s voice provides an emotional anchor to the narrative and an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional folk harmonies of the Young’uns and their deliberate attempt to sound more North Eastern than ever; “In a way we did try to capture the sound of the North East in our music because Johnny’s voice is our voice, and Johnny’s story is our story; the hardships, the unemployment, the struggles of the North East.” Captured across standouts ‘Any Bread?’ and ‘Hostel Strike’, ‘The Battle of’ has a feel of being directly decedent from the socialist, folk, works of Alan Hull, Tommy Armstrong, and the Pitman Poets. Pin-point harmonies and gentle guitar backing, this may be the Young’uns at their strongest musicianship to date.
Drawn on the parallels between the early 20th century, and the socio political background of today, Sean is less keen to use the past as a statement for the future “there are parts of history that haven’t changed, particularly in the North East where times can still be tough and yet we retain that sense of humour, but any parallels between that time and today is not up to the band to preach about. Our role is to tell the stories as objectively as possible and let people make their own minds up. If I was to be drawn on any key message though I would make it about Johnny’s bravery as a young man, a teenager, to stand up for himself and others. Johnny fought for equality and stood up for people, his life was about improving the lives of others yet he was very humble about it. I’m sure that if Johnny was here today he’d be incredibly embarrassed by the attention, arguing that there were thousands of people like him”.
Yet there weren’t thousands of people like Johnny, not really, something that has been made more apparent as the album has gained attention; “given the story of his life, and his bravery, people outside of the North East have presumed that Johnny is a cult figure and that there are streets named after him.”
Having released the album in a multi-medium style (1930s package including notes and images), and touring the album with further presentations of content, Sean admits that there is still more content available for later volumes. “We finish the album when Sean is 19 and heading to the First World War. There’s so much to his life, and we may visit his later years in the future. We’ll see”.
Further stories about selflessness and bravery? Set inside of lush vocals and folk playing? I’ll get the tissues ready.
BRAND NEW ALBUM, ‘THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY LONGSTAFF,’ TO BE RELEASED AS VERY SPECIAL CD PACKAGE ON 7th DECEMBER 2018