In a righteous world, Johnny Longstaff would be held high as a 20th century folk hero.
But until recently his name was largely unknown beyond his family.
However, that may change if The Young’Uns have their way.
The multi-award winning folk trio wrote an album and created a show about Johnny’s early years after being approached by his son at a show. Johnny’s story took him through key moments in the early 20th century labour movement – from standing against Oswald Mosley’s black shirts at the battle of Cable Street, to hunger marches and The Spanish Civil War.
The group included two songs about him on their acclaimed 2017 album Strangers, but they couldn’t put the story down.
As Sean Cooney explains: ‘The way it was presented to us was so beautiful – we did a show in Clevedon in Somerset in 2015 and Johnny’s son, Duncan Longstaff came up to us with a picture of his dad in one hand and a piece of paper in the other with a full list of information about what his dad had done in his life. He’d come along hoping we might be interested in doing a song about Johnny.’
His family pointed the group towards the Imperial War Museum’s archives – they’d recorded Johnny in 1986, shortly before his death.
‘Once we’d heard the story and heard Johnny’s own voice – six hours of reel-to-reel recordings – oh, it was just magical.
‘From there we realised it couldn’t just be one song. Three years later we had 16 songs and a whole touring show, and a special album as well.’
The album, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was released at the start of the year, and has also been turned into a full show which elaborates on the record.
‘It’s important to say here is that Johnny’s not a famous person. We share a hometown – Stockton-on-Tees in the north east – but no-one’s heard of him on Teeside.
‘Hopefully if we spread the word, he might be better known, but there’s no streets named after him and you don’t learn about him in school.
‘But I guess that’s the case of so many of that generation. So many stories just went unheard and have been lost completely, but we were so lucky that Duncan presented it to us, and having those recordings as well was so special. Duncan had come to us because he knew that we wrote songs about inspiring people and that we shared a hometown.’
And Johnny’s family have been involved every step of the way. Duncan would routinely send the trio Johnny’s own books to help them.
‘It’s been a really special project, and to have their involvement from the beginning, has been incredible.
‘In his later years, Johnny actually wrote his autobiography, but it’s never been published, so we had access to that.
‘Duncan’s trying his best to get that edited properly and released at some point.
‘In the post, it seemed every week, Duncan would send us something – there were these huge boxes of books. Johnny became an expert in the Spanish Civil War, which is a big chunk of our story, so Johnny collected books on the subject.
‘We were using Johnny’s own books while we were researching and writing the story, and it was great because it had all these things written in the margins, like things he disagreed with, saying: “I was there, I know!”
‘It felt so wonderful l to be entrusted with the memory and the legacy of the man by his family.’
It seems Johnny’s story is striking a chord wherever the Young’Uns perform the show.
‘Duncan and his family have been to see the show several shows. If they are we always let the audience know when we come out at the end to take a bow, and more often than not the whole place is on their feet. It’s a really special thing.
‘What really struck us about Johnny’s story, really, was the humanity of it. Obviously there’s a lot of politics there, and the fight against fascism on the streets of England, and the hunger marches – Johnny actually mentions Portsmouth in the show, in the show we have more of Johnny’s clips and he lists all the places people came from to take part in that in 1934.’
As Sean says, Johnny is not a famous figure – but it was the nature of his ‘everyman’ story which made him stand out to The Young’Uns. Here was a working class man who got caught up in events and decided to stand up for what he believed in.
‘It’s the humanity – and the innocence – he appears at all of these great moments of working class, social and political struggle, almost naively in many ways.
‘He walked to London in 1934 because he was looking for a job, not because he was politicised, that came later.
‘then when he went to Cable Street in 1936 to stand in defiance of Oswald Moseley’s black shirts, it was because he’d met German teenagers, he’d met Jewish refugees, and he couldn’t understand what was going on.
‘’That’s what motivated him to be the man he became.
‘There’s a great humanity that just oozes through Johnny’s story.’
The show finishes with Johnny still only 19, but he lived to be 81. As Sean admits, there may be more of Johnny’s story to come.
‘I’d love to revisit him at some point. We leave Johnny in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War.
‘We have a bit at the end of the show which explains what happened to him next – for the rest of his life he always stood up for people and was a great community champion.
‘The family continues to tell us these wonderful, funny family stories, so there’s possibly another album there.’
The show is part of the Southdowns Folk Festival, which runs from September 19-22, and also includes sets by Blair Dunlop, Oysterband and Lindisfarne.
Alexandra Theatre, Bognor Regis
Thursday, September 19