The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns

Ballad of Johnny Longstaff Cover

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the latest album by folk trio The Young’uns. The album tells the story of Johnny, a poor working-class man from Stockton who went to London on a hunger march when he was just 15. He took part in many of the protests and campaigns in the mid-1930s, including the Battle of Cable Street, and at the age of just 17 volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is much more than just an album. When performed live, it is a powerful combination of songs, oral history, and archival sources such as photos and newspapers. I went to see the performance on the first night of the tour, at Middleton Hall in Hull, East Yorkshire.

Folk fans know The Young’uns for their beautiful harmonies and political lyrics that don’t pull any punches. Some of their songs are hopeful, uplifting stories that restore faith in humanity. Others are angry, tragic, or defiant, but all of them are thoughtful. Like The Young’uns’ previous albums, the Ballad of Johnny Longstaff contains a mix of such songs. ‘The Great Tomorrow’ is a stirring tribute to international solidarity, ‘Paella’ is a comic song about Johnny encountering Spanish food for the first time, and ‘Ay Carmella’ is a poignant account of conditions in Spain during the Civil War. Interspersed with the songs are clips of Johnny himself talking about his life, and photos, newspaper articles, and other historical sources projected onto the back of the stage.

The Young'uns better

The Young’uns performing The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. The performance makes use of a range of historical sources, like this photo of Johnny and his friends before he left London to fight in the Spanish Civil War (Photo: Mike Ainscoe).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum recorded oral history interviews with many of those who had traveled from the UK to Spain as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The interviews are all available online for anyone to listen to; I used some of them whilst researching the Battle of Cable Street during my PhD. Johnny Longstaff was one of the men who was interviewed. The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney became captivated by Johnny’s story after his son, Duncan, told them about his father at a gig in 2015. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was written with the aid of that interview, Johnny’s unpublished memoirs, his annotated collection of Spanish War literature, his personal collection of photos, and the memories and anecdotes of his family. It is an excellent example of the captivating stories that can be uncovered with meticulous archival and historical research, as well as the range of sources that can be used for this kind of biographical research.

As a historical geographer of protest, I already knew quite a bit about the events Johnny took part in, but I often wonder how much ‘ordinary’ people know. Leaving the auditorium, I listened to other audience members talking about the show. I heard several people saying things like “Well I knew about x, but I didn’t know y.” It was great to hear that people got so much out of it. I recently reviewed Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, about the 1819 Peterloo massacre when soldiers in Manchester killed and injured dozens of peaceful protesters. The film is educational, but it is not very entertaining. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is both. It isn’t just a wonderful performance, it also educates people about the anti-fascist history of the second half of the 1930s. It is a great example of how creative methods can be used to make history accessible. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff will undoubtedly reach more people than my PhD thesis ever will (having said that, I am more than happy to share my 400+ page beast if you would like to read it), and what is the point of doing such research if you can’t find a way to communicate the results with people? As far right groups gain popularity across the world, it seems more important than ever that we don’t forget this crucial period of European history.

To me, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is everything that good art should be. It is engaging, it teaches you something, and it makes you think. I don’t know if The Young’uns have any more performances planned, but I really hope so. It is a show that deserves to be seen.

Cable Street 80

The 4th of October 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a well-known protest in which around 100,000 people prevented the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through the East End of London, which had a large Jewish population at the time. Since the late 70s, it has become tradition for the 5- and 10-year anniversaries of the Battle to be celebrated with a march, and a rally in St George’s Gardens near the Cable Street Mural. On  Sunday the 9th of October I went along to the latest commemoration, Cable Street 80.

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A campaigner outside Altab Ali Park, where the march began. The park is named after a Bangladeshi textile worker who was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Anniversary marches of the Battle of Cable Street have started in the park since the 60th anniversary in 1996 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The commemoration was organised by Cable Street 80, a loose coalition of community and campaigning groups. David Rosenberg (pictured here in the blue vest), a local author and historian, played a key role in organising events (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sadly there are not many people left who were actually present at the Battle, but many people on the march on Sunday had parents or grandparents who were there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A large number of different groups were represented on the march. This is Sarah Jackson, one of the co-founders of the East End Women’s Museum,  a fantastic project to commemorate the lives and activism of women in the East End (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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GMB is a general union which has its roots in the Gas Workers and General Union, formed in the East End in 1889 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street has become a source of inspiration and pride for many on the political left, so a large range of different groups and causes were represented at the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march sets off from Altab Ali Park (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes it way along Commercial Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As time went on and migration brought new communities into the area, the Battle of Cable Street came to be symbolic for whole new generations of East Londoners. It has come to stand as rejection of xenophobia of all kinds, not just anti-Semitism. The Bangladeshi community in East London faced prejudice and violence in the 1970s and 80s, much like the Jewish community had 50 years earlier (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street is continually connected to new and ongoing struggles. For many who marched on Sunday, it was as much about demonstrating a determination to combat the rise of the far-right in Europe today as it was commemorating an event that happened 80 years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes its way down Cable Street, which looks very different now to how it would have done in 1936 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march arrives at the Cable Street mural, on the side of St. George’s Town Hall. The mural itself is nearly 40 years old, and has an interesting history in its own right (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1936, the Irish community in the East End also took part to prevent the BUF marching, when many doubted they would. The Connolly Association campaigns for a united and independent Ireland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street also has a Spanish connection, which explains the presence of the Spanish Communist Party. The Battle’s slogan ‘No Pasaran’ is Spanish for ‘They Shall Not Pass’, and comes from the Spanish Civil Way, which was underway in 1936. Many participants in the Battle of Cable Street went on to volunteer in the International Brigade to fight for the Spanish Republic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Unsurprisingly, there was a strong anti-fascist presence on the march. There are large number of anti-fascist groups in the UK, as evidenced by the amount of anti-fascist protest stickers I have found on the streets of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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After the march there was a large rally in St. George’s Gardens, near the mural. Speaking here is 101-year old Max Levitas, one of the few remaining veterans of the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is Michael Rosen, the well-known author and poet. His parents were both at the Battle of Cable Street, and he is a keen supporter of the process of remembrance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The ‘headliner’ was Jeremy Corbyn, controversial leader of the Labour Party. He is a constant presence at protests and rallies of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).