Nov 03

LONNIE DONEGAN – “Cumberland Gap”

Popular10 comments • 3,813 views

#57, 12th April 1957

“The first punk No.1” says Marcello. Yeah, I can see what he means. Lurching speed-freak skiffle played on Christ knows what which sounds nothing remotely like any previous chart-topper: if punk is anything, it might as well be that. I’d be tempted, though, to pin it down as the first really British No.1, for all that it’s a cover of an old American folk song. Lonnie takes the song?s form and he rides it into the ground, and he takes the song itself and twists it, localises it, makes it into something that can smack you round the chops with how raucously Northern it sounds. “Cumberland Gap, ain’t nowhere, fifteen miles from Middlesborough.”

The great thing is how silly and alive it is. Folk, blues, country – these were already tradition-steeped musics, crackling with myth-making energies for sure but rooted in someone else?s history and a history that those someones could take rightfully seriously. “Cumberland Gap” tumbles out of tradition, in awe of nothing but its own gleeful blurt, treating folk music like a music hall joke and music hall jokes like rock and roll. Listen to the “Two old ladies?” lines – the distance between this record and chewing gum on bedposts is much less than some might like to think.

Of course Donegan (and the skiffle craze) was then inspiration and midwife to The Beatles and The Rest; history tells us this. But it’s only by listening to “Cumberland Gap” that you hear a magpie spirit of British pop – hokey, jokey, disrespectful and quick-witted – poking its beak through the facts.



  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch Part 1: Here are some of the Lonnie Donegan TV appearances which survive – all from after his heyday. Interesting to note that he could be booked as (presumably) a comedian on ‘Joker’s Wild’;

    BARRYMORE: with Alan Johnson, Ray Morgan, Richard Courtice, Lonnie Donegan, The Beverly Sisters (1996)

    CHAS & DAVE’S KNEES-UP: with Lonnie Donegan, Gary Wilmot (1983)

    JOKERS WILD: with Ray Martine, Lonnie Donegan, Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, David Nixon, Les Dawson (1970)

    JOKERS WILD: with Norman Collier, Bob Monkhouse, Les Dawson, Warren Mitchell, Jack Smethurst, Lonnie Donegan (1972)

    KNEES-UP: with Jeff Stevenson, Lonnie Donegan, Brian Conley (1983)

    LENNIE AND JERRY: with Lonnie Donegan, Chuckle Brothers (1979)

    LENNIE AND JERRY: with Lonnie Donegan, Kasatka, Cossacks (1980)

    THE LITTLE AND LARGE SHOW: with Bucks Fizz, Lonnie Donegan (1983)

    RHYTHM ON TWO: with Lonnie Donegan (1980)

    THE ROYAL VARIETY PERFORMANCE: with Adam and the Ants, Acker Bilk, Patti Boulaye, Lonnie Donegan, Donovan, Anita Harris, Lenny Henry, John Inman, Lulu, Elaine Paige (1981)

    THE SATURDAY CROWD: with Leslie Crowther, Anita Harris, Lonnie Donegan, Peter Gordeno, Susan Maughan, Sheila Bernette (1969)

    SING COUNTRY: with Vernon Oxford, Terri Hollowell, Floyd Cramer, Lonnie Donegan, Conway Twitty (1979)

    SING COUNTRY: with Jeannie C. Riley, Porter Wagoner, Colorado, Lonnie Donegan, Rose Marie, Boxcar Willie (1982)

    SIX FIFTY FIVE SPECIAL: with Lonnie Donegan (1982)

    THE SOUNDS OF SCOTLAND: with Rod Stewart, Gallagher and Lyle, Lonnie Donegan, The Alex Welsh Band, Stuart Gillies, Sunshine, Kimberley Clarke (1976)

    STARBURST: with Leslie Crowther, Lonnie Donegan, Jan Michelle, Judy Carne (1981)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Lonnie Donegan, Faith Brown, Penelope Keith, Beryl Reid (1984)

    THIS IS YOUR LIFE: Lonnie Donegan (1991)

    WHEELTAPPERS AND SHUNTERS SOCIAL CLUB: with Lonnie Donegan, Stéphane Grappelli (1974)

  2. 2
    flahr on 17 Nov 2010 #

    crux of the record one: the two points at which lonnie descends into complete incomprehensibility

    crux of the record two: the end – quiet bit, bulletlike drum fill, “cumberland GAAAAAAAP”

    Surprising what you can get away with if you throw in some cheeky winks to keep Gran happy.

  3. 3
    wichita lineman on 17 Nov 2010 #

    The only thing that spoils this for me is Lonnie’s burbling all over the neat guitar break. On the other hand it’s great how, along with Blackpool slapstick “two old ladies” line, the coincidence of Cumberland and Middlesbrough being so close that it matches some obscure piece of North American geography makes the record seem even more English. I asked my folks the other week and, yes, they’d always assumed it was about some crevice close to the Yorkshire Dales.

    No.2 watch – three weeks of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song. Or “TRIIIII-OOO!” as it was re-christened in the eighties.

  4. 4
    Mutley on 17 Nov 2010 #

    If you want to see how Elvis might have performed Cumberland Gap, see the PJ Proby version on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2mIgL51qkg from the Around the Beatles programme.

  5. 5
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #


    Thora Hird, actress (1989).

  6. 6
    beeflin on 24 Jan 2016 #

    Very raucous. A great antidote to all the slushy ballads of the day. I’m pretty proud to have been born while this was bangin’ and howlin’.

  7. 7
    Mark G on 12 Jun 2016 #

    I think, Carrie,most of the spelling mistakes come from spam comments like yours. They also like to invent words too, at least one.

  8. 8

    MIDDLESBROUGH not Middlesborough!

    Colombia, not Columbia. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBBS4imv1qo)

    This was number 1 the day my dad was born. Not many kids of the 50s will have as raucous an entry into this wretched planet. I also know someone who said this was “basically the wellspring of all rock n roll, rockabilly, punk, new wave.” Not 100% sure about that. But bloody amazing song, and good point. Delighted with the score and fully agree with the 8.

  9. 9
    enitharmon on 2 Mar 2021 #

    And it’s goodbye Chris Barber, trad band leader, who gave Lonnie his big break. Who also gave a big break to Alexis Korner, without whom there might have been no Stones, no Animals, no British R&B boom.

  10. 10
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    Not mad keen on Lonnie’s vocal style. 3/10 for me.

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