Cumberland Gap, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 1st of three #1s)
5 weeks, from 12th April – 17th May 1957
I take it all back, what I said in my last post: we are rockin’ and a-rollin’ again. In a very British kind of way. With a very American song.
I’ll explain all that in a minute, but let me start by mentioning the fact that this is a blistering little record. Two minutes of lean, mean, frantic rock. Or more specifically, skiffle. For which read: ‘British Rock ‘n’ Roll’. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll no doubt mention it again, but this is the best thing about a countdown of records based on sales alone: that songs like ‘Cumberland Gap’ can follow on from songs like ‘Young Love’. One follows the other, like night follows day; polar opposites of one another but somehow eternally linked.
The guitar starts lightly, then grows, along with the bass and the drums, before Lonnie Donegan’s voice comes in. Singing about something called ‘the Cumberland Gap’. I say ‘something’, because whatever it is isn’t immediately clear from all his squealing and squawking: Well the Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, Fifteen miles on the Cumberland Gap… The Cumberland Gap, Ain’t nowhere, Fifteen miles from Middleburgh…
Note that it’s Middleburgh, not Middlesbrough. We’re in the US, here – with all the yee-hahs and yodels that that entails. But then we take a strange turn, and it all goes a bit East-End music-hall: Well I got a girl, Six feet tall, Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall… Two old ladies, Sittin’ in the sand, Each one wishin’ that the other was a man…
What this girl and these old women have to do with the ‘Cumberland Gap’ isn’t expanded upon, and Donegan doesn’t hang around either. The lyrics are replaced by straight up screams and a frenetic solo. The song ends with a verse that is just da-dee-dee-dees and a mumbled something about how much he loves ya baby, and then the song title is repeated several times – loud, then quiet, then VERY LOUD and then boom. Done. Phew! You can see why some learned types have referred to this as the first ever punk record.
I have to admit – I’m not sure that I love this record. It’s a bit much. But I do love that it spent five weeks at the top of the UK Singles Charts in the spring of 1957. That the public’s taste in music had evolved enough to allow a song which is essentially a lot of screaming and mumbling such an extended moment in the sun. And I take back what I said about rock being dead, deader than dead. It’s obviously not. I overreacted.
Before I finish, I had to find out what in God’s name the Cumberland Gap actually is. Turns out it’s a mountain pass, located at the convergence of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, which allowed old American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone to pass across the Appalachian Mountains and conquer the wilderness that was The Wild West. Add this, then, to the list, alongside ‘The Man from Laramie’, ‘Hey Joe’, Slim Whitman and Tennessee Ernie Ford, as the latest piece of Americana to find a place at the top of the charts. Was it exoticism? Was it envy? Why were we so obsessed with America? Perhaps we still are.
However, knowing what the Cumberland Gap is has gone no distance in helping me work out what the hell this song is about. As a song it had been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th Century as a folk ditty. Wikipedia mentions lyrics about ‘taking naps’ in the Cumberland Gap, and ‘raising hell’ in the Cumberland Gap, but nothing about six-feet tall women. Perhaps Donegan added those verses himself, and in doing so created the perfect fusion of American rockabilly and British silliness.
We’ll hear from Lonnie Donegan again, and soon. So I won’t delve too deeply into his back-story. ‘Cumberland Gap’ was only his fourth hit single in a chart career that would stretch deep into the sixties and which would bring great success. It is worth noting, though, that he was born in Glasgow and so, after having had an Italian, a Cuban, a Trinidadian and tons of Americans already top the charts, the 57th UK #1 single goes to a Scot.