Ok. Bear with me on this one. I’m about to go deep. But theres a point in here… somewhere.
This stuff has been circling in my mind for some time now.. I’m trying to figure out the formula, or the recipe. The ingredients are all there, stewing in the brain. I Just need to write it all down to see if I can connect the dots and make it make sense. So humour me while I rant and see if you can catch my drift, or am I losing my marbles.
Ill start at the end. Which is the present. And work my way back to the start. Which was 200 million years ago.
I guess what kicked off this train of thought was listening to a podcast a few moths ago, which very casually mentions that John Lennon’s grandmother was from Omagh. How did I not hear of this until now? Was there any truth in this? The guys doing the podcast seemed to think so. i guess it really isn’t so hard to imagine. (Its easy if you try). after all, apart from Ringo, all of the Beatles families trace back to Ireland. They had to come from some town or other. So why not omagh? in true Columbo fashion, I got in touch with mark lewisholm, who is the worlds leading Beatles expert. I quizzed him on this and he was none the wiser. He said its very possible but his research didn’t go back past their parents generation. So, assuming that Lennon did have family roots in omagh, thats quite the bombshell.
Then something else hit me. Didn’t lonnie Donegan’s mother also come from omagh? Don’t know who lonnie Donegan is? Look him up. He was the king of skiffle. Before Elvis came along, he was THE MAN. hes the reason John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison picked up a guitar. Not only the Beatles. Go ask jimmy page. Jeff beck. Clapton. They all picked up a guitar after hearing lonnie Donegan. Van Morrison said Elvis was for girls, lonnie was his king.
Now Zoom back to 1956. A teenage Paul McCartney had been given a trumpet by his father. On the 11th November he attended Liverpools Empire Theatre to watch a Lonnie Donegan concert. He was so inspired by the gig, that the very next day he took his trumpet to the music shop and traded it for a guitar. A few months later he was at a village fete, where he first seen (and heard) John Lennon, on stage with a skiffle band, singing a song made popular by Lonnie Donegan. Through that instant connection, he met with Lennon and joined the band that day. I wonder now did Lennon or Donegan ever realise they both had family from the same small little town in tyrone?
But it doesn’t stop there. And this is where it starts to get a little abstract..
The song lennon was singing on stage that day was Rock Island Line, a song that lonnie donegan made famous, but was originally written by Leadbelly, the American Blues artist from the 30s. Leadbelly was serving a life sentence for murder when he was discovered by folklorist Alan Lomax, who got him pardoned and released from prison under his supervision. He made countless incredible recordings in the years that followed, one of which was the aforementioned Rock Island Line, and another was a song called In The Pines, or Where Did You Sleep Last Night. Now flash forward to 1994 and Nirvana cover this song on their MTV Unplugged performance. Many consider this to be their finest track. Its the last track on their last released record, which kind of makes it full circle if you consider the start of the circle being the fact that Kurt Cobains family also root back to Tyrone, just outside Omagh. I read somewhere recently that while gigging in Ireland, Cobain walked around in a peaceful daze and said to those close to him that he felt a deep connection here, and that he always felt that he was Irish. Even though he didn’t know it, he knew it.
So lets take a breather here and look at what we got… we have Donegan, Lennon, and Cobain, all who never met each other, all having family roots in Tyrone, and all for some reason singing Leadbelly songs. What was it about this blues music that resonated so much with these young men, and resonates with people in general from around here? like why was I listening to Leadbelly as a teenager? it doesn’t make sense. Why does blues and country music hit such a nerve with the Irish, when it comes from away over yonder in the mountains of America?… Or does it?
Lets zoom back 200 million years, when the earths plates collided to form Pangaea, the supercontinent that included all continents of Earth. Out of this collision, the Appalachian Mountains were formed, a mountain range that runs over 3000 miles. Then, a mere 25 million years later, Pangaea began to break up, and with it, the Appalachian mountains scattered to different continents, most of which across America, but there are remnants of the Appalachians across Ireland, including right outside omagh. Thats why the mountains up here look so similar to the American Appalachians – they are literally the same mountain range.
So lets get back to the late 1800s/early 1900s, when Irish and European settlers wound up in the American mountain range. They took with them their folk songs and ballads from back home and sang them up there on those mountains. This planted the musical seed for everything that followed. Appalachian music was the start of Bluegrass, Blues, Country, Jazz… mountain music.
As my good pal Howe Gelb put it, ‘’I can only tell you that I believe Ireland invented song. And Africa invented rhythm. And in America those two influences collided and became things like country music and jazz. Like blues and rock & roll.
And some of us at a certain point growing up took notice of how Hank Williams handled it. How Thelonious Monk handled it. How Bob Dylan enlightened the path by forging his own pen upon the stage with both of those influential territorial sparklings.’’
So maybe thats what struck such a chord with donegan, lennon, and Cobain when they heard people like Leadbelly. It was in their blood. they knew that music before they were even born. it was in their DNA. And American music is Irish music. We brought it there and they sent it back as country, and we send it back as something else, and they send it back as something else and so on and so on. Its a game of musical ping pong. Across the Atlantic. It goes back 200 million years. An ancient thing that is probably unexplainable. Or maybe a magic that is best left unexplained. so I’ll stop trying to do so. I’ll just leave you to ponder it all.
I’ll go out with a quote, from George Harrison..
’’Without Leadbelly, no Lonnie Donegan. Without Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.’’