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Aug 04

THE HIGHWAYMEN – “Michael”

Popular11 comments • 1,517 views

#127, 14th October 1961

I can only assume the Great British Record Buying Public had had a collectively tough day. They got home, put their feet up, their coat on a hook, their cocoa by their side and their copy of “Michael” on the gramophone. And they were soothed. Fifteen years later we were still rowing the boat ashore, Hallelujah, in school assemblies.

If you look at the list of 1961 Number Ones you see no consensus, no binding thread or trend, Elvis hit the top regularly but the songs he used skipped haphazard from style to style. Instrumentals, death dramas, folk songs, throwbacks and teenage girls swap back and forth at the top of the chart, diverse and directionless. A lot of the songs are pretty bad: “Michael” isn’t, I think it’s sweet and sincere (and the whistling is so pretty), but the idea of such a modest song at the top of the pop charts is odd. Not unpleasant, just odd.

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Comments

  1. 1
    richard thompson on 7 Jun 2008 #

    This is another of those songs that my nan and her generation would have liked, more people went to church back then like she did.

  2. 2
    wichita lineman on 4 Oct 2010 #

    The first number one from the folk revival, and I think the next is Mr Tambourine Man which shows how fast things moved in four years. The folk revival was an almost exact parallel to the UK’s trad jazz boom – popular with beatniks, students, young liberals, civil rights activists, nascent hippies, though much of it (like the sweet but hardly firestarting Michael) sounds very tame compared to what was around the corner.

    The folk scene was a much bigger deal on the US charts than UK ones; it was mostly an album phenomenon, but the Brothers Four’s Greenfields had reached no.2 in 1960 a year earlier, and the Rooftop Singers’ Walk Right In was another no.1 in ’63. The Kingston Trio had 17 Hot 100 hits from Tom Dooley in 1958 (their only UK hit) to 1963, when Peter Paul & Mary appeared to provide a more rootsy option (they were put together like Boyzone, but who knew it then?).

    The Highwaymen met at Wesleyan University and sang together on campus, not unlike a middle class version of a doo wop act. Gil Robbins, a Highwayman some time after Michael was a hit, is the father of Tim Robbins who is now also on the road as a folkie.

    They had another US Top 20 hit later in the year with Cottonfields, which is presumably the version the Beach Boys were familiar with when they cut it in 1969. It was traditional, copyrighted in 1850, which must make it one of the oldest UK Top 5 hits. Amazing Grace is officially older, written by John Newton in 1779 – any other candidates?

  3. 3
    Mutley on 4 Oct 2010 #

    #2 final paragraph. What about “My Old Man’s a Dustman” by Lonnie Donegan in 1960, and now revitalised as a mobile ring tone. Although probably not as old as the two mentioned, it must go back to music hall days. If the search is extended to UK top 20 hits, the skiffle era may provide fertile ground for 19th century oldies?

  4. 4
    Mutley on 4 Oct 2010 #

    I should add that Mull of Kintyre sounds as though it may be of a similar age to Amazing Grace.

  5. 5
    wichita lineman on 5 Oct 2010 #

    Re 2: My Old Man’s A Dustman was written by Lonnie Donegan’s manager, Peter Buchanan, so it’s about as authentically music hall as Park Life. That might explain why the jokes aren’t exactly Max Miller… for instance:

    “I was walking along this narrow mountain pass – so narrow that nobody else could pass you, when I saw a beautiful blonde walking towards me. A beautiful blonde with not a stitch on, yes, not a stitch on, lady. Cor blimey, I didn’t know whether to toss myself off or block her passage.”

  6. 6
    Mutley on 5 Oct 2010 #

    Re 5. Wicheta, I think you may be mistaken on this one, and I think it is an adaptation of a much older song written by J P Long in the 1920s. The only reliable source I can find to support this is at http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-an10545598

    I can recall chanting My Old Man’s A Dustman as a child in the mid 50s, as an anti-German song, a version that probably dated back to World War 2. I know it is often an unreliable source but the internet has message boards dealing with playground songs with versions similar to the one I remember.

    On a similar theme, the label of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line is shown with “traditional” as author, although I thought it was written by Leadbelly. I’m not sure if there are issues of songwriter royalties in these cases (like Elvis’ name appearing as a writer on All Shook Up)?

  7. 7
    wichita lineman on 5 Oct 2010 #

    Gosh, yes, top research. When Peter Buchanan died in the summer none of the obits mentoned this. Here are the lyrics to the JP Long version:

    I’ve married a man of position. I’ve married a man of great wealth.
    He works very hard for his living, and it isn’t too good for his health.
    I think his good job will continue. Well, that’s what I fervently trust.
    He’s rapidly making his fortune. Yes, he’s covered all over with dust.

    CHORUS: My old man’s a dustman. What d’yer think of that?
    What d’yer think of that? What d’yer think of that?
    He wears a dustman’s trousers, he wears a dustman’s hat,
    And he talks a dustman’s language. What d’yer think of that?

    When they only paid him thirty bob a week,
    He called me his little turtledove;
    But since they’ve raised his salary to four pounds ten,
    He throws his rubbish where he throws his love!

    He used to have beer for his breakfast, but now he wants nothing but “fizz.”
    So I give him a Seidlitz powder, and then I leaves things as they is.
    I’m getting quite jealous of Herbert. The ladies admire him, I know;
    And the way that he picks up a dustbin, oh, it does show his figure off so!

    You’ll notice this dress that I’m wearing: it’s sent all my friends up the pole.
    He got it for me on my birthday from Robinson Peter’s “dusthole.”
    Our rag-and-bone man said this morning the material’s “cheepy de shin.”
    I fancy it’s “sackcloth and ashes” by the way that it scratches my skin.

  8. 8
    Mutley on 5 Oct 2010 #

    The song I thought was contemporary to Lonnie Donegan “Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?” is also from the 1920s according to that same source. However, this time it is correctly attributed to the original composers on the record label.

  9. 9
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #
  10. 10
    Patrick Mexico on 26 Nov 2013 #

    Until yesterday I genuinely believed this was the same thing as that other popular sea shanty, Drunken Sailor.. crushingly disappointed, as with a hook like that anyone under the influence could make that sound quite extraordinary.

    On a more dubious note, thought “What’s it like to lose a war, Argentina?” (as yelled at Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles c. 1982) also came from the former, rather than this pipe-and-slippers non-event.
    Something like the Mumfords or Kodaline of their day. 2.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 18 Jun 2014 #

    I have a positive disposition towards songs that encourage (or are repurposed for) solidarity and can remember singing this at school and around campfires – not with any great sense of religious meaning but just enjoying being part of a group, as one might when singing a soccer chant.
    This performance gives very little sense of that – it’s too mannered and polite, draining the life out of the song.

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