A new show from three-time BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners The Young’uns looks at the extraordinary life of a man who fought in the Spanish Civil War and took part in other major political events of the 1930s.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the story of one man’s adventure from begging on the streets in the north of England to fighting fascism in Spain, taking part in Hunger Marches and the Battle of Cable Street.
The Teesside trio bring together 16 specially-composed songs, spoken word, striking imagery and the Johnny’s own recorded voice to tell his story.
Here they answer questions about the show.
Who are The Young’uns?
Sean Cooney: We are Michael Hughes, David Eagle and myself, Sean Cooney - three folk singers from Teesside.
How did you meet?
Michael and I have known each other virtually all our lives since we first met in primary school. We then met David when we were 17.
What are The Young’uns known for?
We’re known for our tight harmonies but also having a laugh and bantering with each other on-stage. In more recent years we’ve gained a reputation for writing and performing songs with a social conscience. Be the Man tells the tragic story of Naz Mahmood - who took his own life following his religious family’s reluctance to accept his sexuality - and his fiancée Matt’s mission to campaign for change. Through writing the song we’ve become good friends with Matt who recently asked us to become patrons of the Naz And Matt Foundation
Who was Johnny?
Johnny Longstaff was an ordinary man who saw and did extraordinary things. He was born in our home town of Stockton-On-Tees in 1919. At the height of the Great Depression he begged for bread on the streets.
When he was 15 he joined the National Hunger March and walked 240 miles to London where he slept rough on the south bank of the Thames for several months. The inequality he witnessed in London changed the way he saw the world.
He joined the Labour Party League of Youth and campaigned for a fairer future and took part in mass trespasses which paved the way for the right to roam in Britain. Meeting Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany led him to oppose the rise of fascism in Britain most significantly at Cable Street in the East End of London in 1936.
Within a year he had lied about his age and went to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Wounded three times he arrived back in Britain months before the outbreak of World War Two.
He became a sergeant in the London Rifle Brigade and fought in Africa at El Alamein and in Italy at Monte Cassino. He was awarded a bronze star for gallantry. He campaigned for equality and justice for the rest of his life and died in 2000.
How did the show come about?
One night after a gig in Somerset in May 2015, Johnny’s son Duncan approached us with the story of his dad’s life. He encouraged us to listen to the recordings Johnny made for the Imperial War Museum in 1986. Duncan had hoped we would write a song about his dad - we actually ended up writing 16 songs!
The Young’uns are playing Sheffield City Hall Ballroom on Sunday, February 3.
*An album, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff, was released in December. It includes pieces of Johnny’s oral testimony and a dossier of historical notes and extras. It is on sale at shows or online via www.theyounguns.co.uk