John, Paul, George and Ringo: Country, Western, Skiffle, Rock ‘n’ Roll
When The Quarrymen’s first manager, Nigel Walley, had business cards printed, they stated their musical specialities: “Country … Western … Skiffle … Rock ‘n’ Roll”. We know that they became the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group in Liverpool and Hamburg, and the greatest pop act of all time, but their roots were firmly in skiffle, folk and country.
Those roots never left them, and are there to see in the artists they covered, those that influenced them, and in many of their most famous songs.
Among The Quarrymen’s repertoire were:
● “Rock Island Line”, “Puttin’ on the Style”,
“Railroad Bill” and “Worried Man Blues” as recorded by Lonnie Donegan, which could all be classed as country/ blues/ folk or bluegrass.
● “Lost John” and “Cumberland Gap” by Woodie Guthrie, which were American folk/ country.
● “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, which was classic rockabilly from 1956.
● “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, a bluegrass song. Recorded and released by Elvis Presley in 1954.
● “Lead Belly” featured heavily in those early days of skiffle. “Bring Me Little Water Silvie” and “Midnight Special”, recorded by Lead Belly, were country blues songs. They also performed “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, a traditional country/ folk song.
● “Freight Train” by the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with Nancy Whiskey, played in that fast, bluegrass-esque style, from 1957.
Elvis was a great country music performer in the early Sun Records days, and released:
● “All Shook Up”, “Don’t be Cruel” and “Mean Woman Blues” with strong rockabilly roots. “All Shook Up” topped the country chart. “Don’t Be Cruel” went on to top all the charts, coupled with “Hound Dog”. It was the biggest seller for Elvis in 1956, and over time sold
over 6 million records.
● “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, recorded by Elvis in 1955 was a country song.
● “Down by the Riverside”, which is an old spiritual song, antebellum, and revived as a country/ gospel song.
● “Streamline Train” and “Maggie May” by The Vipers Skiffle Group, both old folk/ country songs in the new “skiffle” style, produced by George Martin for Parlophone.
● “Baby, Let’s Play House” by Arthur Gunter, a blues song, later covered by Elvis in a country style. This was the first song that Elvis recorded, which appeared on the billboard country charts at #5. The Quarrymen were recorded performing this on 6th July 1957.
● “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” was released with “Baby, Let’s Play House”, and was another rockabilly song in that early Elvis, Sun Records, style.
● “Raunchy” by Bill Justis, an instrumental played by George Harrison as his audition for The Quarrymen in December 1957. This was one of the first ‘rock’ songs to use the twang of the lead guitar.
● “Guitar Boogie” by Arthur Smith. Smith was a TV star who had the first nationally syndicated country music show on television. When playing this song in October 1957, Paul McCartney made a mess of the lead guitar part. Paul therefore told John that they needed a lead guitarist, and he knew just the lad; George Harrison.
● “Twenty Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran was classic rockabilly, played by Paul McCartney as his audition piece when he met John Lennon for the first time on 6th July 1957.
● “That’s Alright Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. A rockabilly song that became Elvis Presley’s debut single in 1954, with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side.
Within that eclectic mix of songs is skiffle, bluegrass, folk, hillbilly/ country and rockabilly which, of course, all have their roots in country music. Even the early rock ‘n’ roll songs, especially those by Hank Williams, are so close to country that it is hard to tell where the lines are.
John Lennon and Hank Williams
Michael Hill, school friend of John Lennon through Dovedale Primary School and Quarry Bank, used to host record-listening lunchtimes at his house, with John, his best mate Pete Shotton, and Michael’s best friend Don Beattie. As well as introducing Lennon to “Long Tall Sally”, a record that changed Lennon’s life, Michael said that John “really got hooked on Hank Williams, due to me.
“John, as an adult and a successful performer, treasured fond memories of the musical foundations of his life, for which he was much in my debt. John told an interviewer; ‘I listened to country music. I started imitating Hank Williams when I was fifteen, before I could play the guitar. I used to go round to a friend’s house, because he had the record player, and we sang all that Lonnie Donegan stuff and Hank Williams. He, Mike Hill, had all the records’.
The Country Roots of The Beatles
Find out more about the country roots of The Beatles in “The Country of Liverpool”.