When John Lennon started his first group, The Quarrymen, back in 1956, their musical influences were many and varied. There is no doubt that, without Lonnie Donegan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison would not have formed a group; the same goes for those Liverpool groups, and numerous British groups, who became famous.
The Quarrymen’s first manager, Nigel Walley, had business cards printed, in which 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.
The Quarrymen’s Repertoire
The Quarrymen’s sets would often consist of the following:
“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, also recorded by Donegan.
George’s hero was Carl Perkins, whose “Blue Suede Shoes”, made famous by Elvis, was classic rockabilly – a fusion of rock ‘n’ roll and “hillbilly” country music – from 1956. It is also interesting that John, even though he adored Elvis, gave a surprising answer about “Blue Suede Shoes”; “I suppose I started to get off-beat, musically, when I found out that I liked Carl Perkins’ version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ better than Presley’s.” (TuneIn)
John Lennon‘s Country Roots
Michael Hill was a school friend of John Lennon, through Dovedale Primary School and Quarry Bank. He 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’.
“Best of all for singing along were the Hank Williams records,” continued Mike. Like Hank Williams fans everywhere, we struggled to decipher the lyrics he was singing in songs, such as ‘Jambalaya’, with its Creole words and idiomatic language, and in ‘Settin’ The Woods on Fire’. Some of the words were totally unintelligible to us, but we thought the tunes, the accent, and the rhythm were all great.
“I had more records by Hank Williams than by any other artist, seven in all and all 10inch 78 rpm vinyl records with the bright yellow labels and issued by MGM. Here are the records that John Lennon sung along to:
“Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” / “Window Shopping”
“Settin’ The Wood On Fire” / “You Win Again”
“Take These Chains From My Heart” / “Kaw Liga”
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” / “A Teardrop On A Rose”
“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” / “Let’s Turn Back The Years”
“Baby, We’re Really In Love” / “I Can’t Help It”
“California Zephyr” / “I’m Gonna Sing”
“John had no Hank Williams records. In fact, he had no records at all apart from a well worn copy of Lonnie Donegan’s record of ‘Rock Island Line’ which he sold to Rod Davis in 1957 as he lost interest in skiffle music. I suspect he stole my copy of this record as he was an inveterate pilferer and my copy went missing. Be that as it may, to my knowledge, the only exposure John Lennon had to country music was at my house listening to my records.” (John Lennon: The Boy Who Became A Legend)
“Crumbly and Western”
John commented on his country roots and how it pertained to the formation of The Quarrymen. “I grew up with blues music, country and western music, which is also a big thing in Liverpool. One of the first visions I had was one of a fully dressed cowboy in the middle of Liverpool with his Hawaiian guitar – the first time I ever saw a guitar in my life.” He also famously referred to country and western as ‘Crumbly & Western’. (Bob Rogers 1964)
Country music, as we have seen, was very popular in Liverpool, and formed the basis of skiffle and what was to follow. “What we realised was that the three chords we had learned to play skiffle,” said Rod Davis, banjo player with The Quarrymen, “could also play country songs, and later on, rock ‘n’ roll songs.” The evolution from skifflers to rockers was an easy one, as was the transformation of skifflers to country groups.
Rod Davis was one of those to leave the skiffle music and head down that country road. “I made the occasional foray into it in the ‘60s as I played fiddle, mandolin, autoharp & guitar in a Bluegrass band called The Bluegrass Ramblers. We were really on the folk scene, playing at the Spinners, Pete McGovern’s Wash-house and generally all over the North-West. Just now and then we appeared at Ossie Wade’s in Everton or at the 21 Club.
The “Cousin” Phenomenon
“It was a bit weird as everybody called each other ‘cousin’ and fancied themselves as latter-day cowboys. When we turned up at Ossie Wade’s, they thought we were a folk group, the autoharp especially put them off. However Bill Clifton appeared there not long after us and he played an autoharp! But as he was a very large ex-US Marine, so I doubt if any of the cousins objected! The other problem was that we were totally acoustic, with no “lekky” (electric) guitars – and we had a banjo! So basically not cool enough for the would-be cowboys.”
The Quarrymen’s Rod Davis on ‘The Country of Liverpool’
“David Bedford has done Liverpool’s Country Music scene a great service by producing this monumental work of some 400 pages. For years it has been overshadowed by the Merseybeat scene, yet there were well over 100 Country groups on Merseyside – many of them even played the Cavern and there was more than a little crossover, both in music and musicians! Even the Beatles were not immune. It’s about time that this other vibrant strand of Liverpool’s music received proper recognition – here you have it!”