Teesside-based folk trio The Young ‘uns have been singing about injustices, historical and modern, for some years now, releasing four well-received albums and touring folk venues and festivals up and down the country. Their songs, written by the trio’s Sean Cooney, have covered everything from fighting poverty in the 1930s to fighting homophobia in the 2010s.
The Young ‘uns latest tour, however, The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff is devoted to a single theme. Johnny Longstaff was born in Stockton-on-Tees just after the First World War. Poverty and unemployment drove him to London as a teenager, via the Hunger March of 1934. Whilst in London Longstaff became more and more politicised, volunteering for the Spanish Civil War in 1936 as a young man of just seventeen. Longstaff recalled his experiences in a series of recordings in the 1980s. Using excerpts from these tapes and photo montages from the period interspersed with their songs, The Young Uns bring his story to life once more.
With sixteen songs composed by Cooney 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’ retells the tale of the famous battle with Moseley’s fascists on the streets of London. As the show unfolds songs like ‘The Great Tomorrow’, ‘Trench Tales’ and ‘David Guest’ recall the experiences of fighting Franco’s fascists, from the bitter conditions and lack of food to the heroics of fallen comrades that Longstaff fought alongside. The show ends with a rendition of ‘The Valley Of Jarama’, a song song sung by Spanish Civil War veterans and written by Alex McDade, himself one of the volunteers of the British Battalion fighting the fascists. Although the forces against fascism were defeated in Spain, Longstaff, who died in 2000, was adamant that the Spanish Civil War was a vital prerequisite for the successful defeat of fascism in the guise of Hitler’s Nazism just a few years later.
I’ve seen the Young ‘uns on multiple occasions now and their live performances, in addition to their brand of movingly defiant songs, usually involve much hilarious ad-libbed banter, both between themselves and with the audience. With The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, however, the guys prove that their gift for storytelling and their natural affinity with the underdog also means they can pull of a project as ambitious as this and move an audience to tears in the process.