Moving On Skiffle Van Morrison
Label: Virgin Music UK LAS (S&D)
Subgenre: Bluesy Rock
Artist: Van Morrison
Album including Album cover
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- 1Freight Train03:25
- 2Careless Love05:39
- 3Sail Away Ladies03:17
- 4Streamline Train04:02
- 5Take This Hammer04:38
- 6No Other Baby04:30
- 7Gypsy Davy04:19
- 8This Loving Light Of Mine05:09
- 9In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down04:24
- 10Yonder Comes A Sucker03:12
- 11Travelin’ Blues03:41
- 12Gov Don't Allow04:09
- 13Come On In03:38
- 14Streamlined Cannonball03:14
- 15Greenback Dollar03:42
- 16Oh Lonesome Me03:25
- 17I Wish I Was An Apple On A Tree03:13
- 18I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry03:04
- 19I’m Movin’ On02:56
- 20Cold Cold Heart03:26
- 21Worried Man Blues04:37
- 22Cotton Fields03:05
- 23Green Rocky Road08:57
Info for Moving On Skiffle
It should come as no surprise that Van Morrison has made an album inspired by skiffle. Or that it takes a homemade style that exploded across Britain in the mid-1950s and brings to it a level of sophistication and soulfulness it didn’t always possess first time round. Skiffle has its roots in the African-American jug bands of 1920s New Orleans, who got around a lack of funds for proper musical instruments by using washboards, tea chests, jugs and tubs to appropriate their own take on the country blues. By the time it reached the UK, largely thanks to enthusiasts such as Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan — who scored a massive hit in 1955 with his skiffle take on blues legend Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line — it became an entry point for a generation of callow British youth into the endlessly absorbing world of American blues, folk, jazz and country music. And nobody has inhabited that music, over an entire lifetime, as much as Van Morrison.
“I was still in school when I performed with a skiffle band – a couple of guitars, a washboard and a tea-chest bass,” says Morrison, who grew up in East Belfast, “I was already familiar with Lead Belly’s recordings, so when I heard Lonnie Donegan’s version of Rock Island Line I intuitively understood what he was creating. I knew that it was what I wanted to do. It was like an explosion. This record retranslates songs from that era.”
His love for American music began during childhood when his father would bring him to record store Atlantic Records, a famous shop in the heart of Belfast, to hang out and listen to music with proprietor Solly Lipsitz. There he would hear early 20th century folk, blues and jazz; music that started life in the prisons and fields of Mississippi and the bars and brothels of New Orleans. “I was in a smoky room, hearing Lead Belly and Jelly Roll Morton, and I connected with it early on,” he remembers. “I didn’t know I was going to do it professionally. One of the teachers at Orangefield School told me I was going to be a singer before I knew it myself.”
The skiffle genre is the thread running through Morrison’s diverse career. From the 50’s and 60’s spent listening to his heroes Donegan and Barber shaking up the music scene, to later recording the now iconic The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998 with them. The recording took place at the Whitla hall in Belfast to live audience and included revitalised skiffle adaptations of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene and Jimmy Rodgers’ Muleskinner Blues.
As these legends of skiffle sadly passed, Morrison was front and centre in honouring their legacy, performing at tribute concerts, Lonnie Donegan Rock Island Line in 2004 and Lead Belly Fest, 2015, both at the Royal Albert Hall. Morrison also paid a personal tribute to Donegan in documentary Lonnie Donegan and Me.
Although he headed down a rock’n’roll path with several bands, showbands and later his RnB band Them, and explored the limits of jazz-rock with such spiritually inspired masterpieces as Astral Weeks and Moondance, Morrison has always returned to his first love sooner or later. Moving On Skiffle is essentially a tribute to that music, albeit one in which Morrison’s famously soulful voice takes these standards down new roads. Morrison discovered many of the songs through recordings by Chas McDevitt, a Scottish born musician whose skiffle group performed regularly in coffee shops and jazz clubs in 1950s Soho, London.
“Chas McDevitt’s book is where to start when it comes to the history of skiffle,” says Morrison, referring to McDevitt’s Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story. “From the very beginning, with Lead Belly and the jug bands laying the foundations, through to Lonnie Donegan’s influence and Chas McDevitt’s skiffle group, it’s all in there.”
You might notice a few alterations along the way. The ever rebellious Morrison has changed the title of Mama Don’t Allow, recorded by both the Memphis Jug Band and the Chicago blues man Tampa Red in the late 1920s, to Gov Don’t Allow, a nod to his fight against the rise of totalitarianism. The gospel standard This Little Light of Mine, a key anthem of the Civil Rights movement in 60s America, is transformed into the rollicking, upbeat This Loving Light of Mine, Morrison’s own plea for making the most of every day. For the most part, though, he’s playing it straight.
One of the highlights is Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotton, a former nanny for the folk singer Peggy Seeger. Cotton wrote the song as a teenager in the early years of the 20th century, after being inspired by the sound of the trains rolling down the tracks in her native North Carolina. Seeger took the song to England and played it in the folk clubs, after which Chris McDevitt recorded a version of it in 1956 that became a major UK hit. Van Morrison has given the song a sophisticated jazz arrangement complete with rollicking organ, close harmony vocals and some new words in the second verse, but he has stayed entirely true to the sweet spirit of Cotton’s original.
Elsewhere, Wish I Was An Apple On A Tree takes an old American folk song, which became the basis for the hit Cindy by late 50s rock’n’roller Ricky Nelson, and brings to it a wonderfully warm quality, complete with a jaunty washboard part by Sticky Wicket and treacle-rich backing vocals from Crawford Bell, Dana Masters and Jolene O’Hara. Morrison has also repurposed skiffle favourites about what matters in the modern age. The traditional folk ballad Gypsy Davey, a tale of a rich man’s wife who falls for a bohemian of no fixed address, has a timeless message on true love’s power. It featured on a 1956 recording by Chris Barber, whose New Orleans Jazz Band was instrumental in introducing trad jazz to Britain, launching not only Lonnie Donegan’s career but the skiffle boom in general. Meanwhile, a doo-wop styled rendition of Greenback Dollar finds Morrison asking for love, not money, over Dave Keary’s bluesy guitar and his own impassioned saxophone.
Moving On Skiffle ends with Green Rocky Road, a plaintive folk gem and an ode to the troubadour life that was made famous by Greenwich Village folkies Fred Neil and Dave Van Ronk and featured in a scene from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2014 film set in New York’s early 60s folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis. It makes for a fitting finale to a 23-track album, which goes to the heart of the music Van Morrison has inhabited ever since those early years spent hanging out in the smoky confines of Belfast’s Atlantic Records. It also contains songs that underline, in their messages on the importance of freedom and living on your own terms, his lifetime philosophy. As Morrison puts it: “Freedom is not a given anymore. You have to fight for it. That’s where the blues come in.”
One of music’s true originals Van Morrison’s unique and inspirational musical legacy is rooted in postwar Belfast.
Born in 1945 Van heard his Shipyard worker father’s collection of blues, country and gospel early in life.
Feeding off musical greats such as Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson and Leadbelly he was a travelling musician at 13 and singing, playing guitar and sax, in several bands, before forming Them in 1964.
Making their name at Belfast’s Maritime Club Them soon established Van as a major force in the British R&B scene. Morrison’s matchless vocal and songwriting talents produced instant classics such as the much covered ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here Comes The Night’.
Those talents found full astonishing range in Van’s solo career.
After working with Them’s New York producer Bert Berns on beautiful Top 40 pop hit ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (1967), Morrison moved to another realm.
Recorded over 3 days with legendary jazz musicians Astral Weeks (1968) is a still singular album combining street poetry, jazz improvisation, Celtic invocation and Afro Celtic Blues wailing.
Morrison would weave these and myriad other influences into the albums that followed in quick succession.
Reflecting on new life in America on the joyous Sinatra soul of Moondance (1970) and the country inflected Tupelo Honey (1971) he summoned old spiritual and ancestral life in the epic St Dominic’s Preview (1972) closer track Listen To The Lion.
Double live album Too Late To Stop Now (1973) highlighted Morrison’s superlative performing and bandleader skills. Mapping out a richly varied musical course throughout the 70s he shone among an all-star cast including Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters on The Band’s Last Waltz.
Indeed, borne of his Irish Showband instincts, the magic of the live performance has been a consistent feature of Morrison’s career.
Settling back into life in the UK in 1980 he released Common One an album centring on Summertime In England an extraordinary invocation of literary, sensual and spiritual pleasure the song would often become a thrilling improvised centrepiece to his live shows.
Steering his own course throughout the 80s on albums such as No Guru, No Method, No Teacher he claimed Celtic roots with The Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat. Teaming with Georgie Fame brought new impetus to his live show while Avalon Sunset saw him back in the album and single charts by the decades end.
Van Morrison continued to advance on his status as a game- changing artist through the 90s and into the 21st century.
Awards and accolades - a Brit, an OBE, an Ivor Novello, 6 Grammys, honourary doctorates from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, entry into The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and the French Ordres Des Artes Et Des Lettres - attested to the international reach of Van’s musical art.
Yet there was never any suggestion that Morrison, one of the most prolific recording artists and hardest working live performers of his era, would ever rest on his laurels.
Collaborations with, among others, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Lonnie Donegan, Mose Allison and Tom Jones confirmed the breadth of his musical reach.
Morrison’s visionary songwriting and mastery of many genres continued to shine on albums celebrating and re-exploring his blues, jazz, skiffle and country roots.
The influence of the musical journey that began back in Post War Belfast stretches across the generations, and Morrison’s questing hunger insures that the journey itself continues.
Constantly reshaping his musical history in live performance, Morrison reclaimed Astral Weeks on 2009’s album Live At The Hollywood Bowl.
The subtitle of Van Morrison's latest album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, indicates the power that music still holds for this living legend. "No Plan B means this is not a rehearsal," says Morrison. "That’s the main thing—it’s not a hobby, it’s real, happening now, in real time."
With one of the most revered catalogues in music history and his unparalleled talents as composer, singer and performer Morrison’s past achievements loom large. But, as throughout his extraordinary career, how that past informs his future achievements and still stirs excitement and keen anticipation.
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