Timely tale of a boy who walked out of poverty, a teenager who stood up to racism, a soldier who fought fascism and an old man who inspired a new generation.
From the shadow of the Teesside shipyards, to the banks of the Thames. From Cable Street to the Spanish Civil War. Johnny Longstaff bore witness to some of the most defining moments of the early 20th century. Before he died, he recorded his story in words which were harrowing, hilarious, poignant, proud and ultimately uplifting.
How the project came about
In 2015, a man arrived at one of our concerts with a picture of his late father and a story. His father’s name was Johnny Longstaff and what a story he had to tell.
As a teenager, Johnny walked 230 miles from our hometown of Stockton-On-Tees to London in search of work and from then on bore witness to some of the most defining moments of the tumultuous 1930s including the Battle of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War.
Exploring Johnny’s story through his own spoken words with the recordings he made for the Imperial War Museum and having access to his never before published memoirs and his personal book & photo archive has been a labour of love for us.
Three years later we have created a 90 minute show in which 16 original songs interweave with Johnny’s own voice against a backdrop of startling visuals to tell an incredible story. It’s not a story that glorifies conflict or imposes political views – it’s a story that oozes humanity, humour and fellowship.
In the summer of 1939, as war clouds loomed over Europe, a 19-year old lad from Teesside went to the House of Commons to meet his local MP. He had just returned from fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War (to do so was illegal because of Britain’s policy of non- intervention).
Hearing footsteps coming down the corridor he turned to see the figure of Winston Churchill approaching. The lad’s MP took the opportunity of introducing him. Churchill looked the teenage soldier up and down, took his cigar out of his mouth, and said ‘Would young men like you be prepared to fight against Hitler?’ The lad took a deep breath before he answered; ‘Mr Churchill,’ he said, ‘I’ve been fighting Hitler all of my life.’
His name was Johnny Longstaff.
This is the story of his life from the day it began in abject poverty in Stockton-On-Tees in 1919 to that chance meeting with Churchill in 1939. 16 original songs interweave with the late Johnny’s own recorded voice to tell a remarkable story of one man’s impulse to react to injustice wherever and whenever he saw it.
It’s a story of great humanity but also great humour as a teenager stumbles his way innocently through the tumultuous landscapes of the 1930s – from Teesside to London, then onto Paris and eventually across the Pyrenees into Spain (even though he didn’t even know where Spain was).
With sixteen songs the trio sing their way through Longstaff’s remarkable life. Songs like Any Bread and Carrying The Coffin recall the poverty and destitution of life in the north-east in the Great Depression, while Cable Street (see below) retells the tale of the famous battle with Moseley’s fascists on the streets of London. The Great Tomorrow, Trench Tales and David Guest recall the experiences of fighting Franco’s fascists. The show ends with The Valley Of Jarama, which was written by Alex McDade, one of the volunteers of the British Battalion fighting the fascists.
The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff on tour
The Young’uns will be taking The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff on tour across the UK in January and February 2019. Details to be announced soon, see www.theyounguns.co.uk.
The Young’uns’ latest album Strangers won the 2018 Best Album in the BBC Folk Awards. They were the winners of Best Group in both the 2015 and 2016 BBC Folk Awards.
“This Teesside trio have captured hearts – and awards – with a magic combination of lusty singing, memorable tunes and heart-on-sleeve songwriting. They are modern day troubadours of working people its a role they play with absolute commitment and huge skill.” – Songlines