Back to the Future – Skiffle and Blues Harp (1956)

Lonnie Donegan was the King of Skiffle. In the 1950s he played some great country blues songs like Rock Island Line, Stewball,  Midnight Special, Mule Skinner Blues… but he never had the chance to play with a blues harp player.  

30 years later Lonnie got more recognition for what he has achieved and made a tribute album with Rory Gallagher, Elton John, Brian May Ringo Starr and Leo Sayer on blues harp.

One of my favourite Donegan recordings is one called “I’m a Roving Rambler” and earlier this year I was playing this track for my friend , Marty McFly, who was over from Chicago. I said I thought it was crying out for a bit of blues harp.

Here is how it starts….

Lonnie Donegan – Roving Rambler intro

Marty was playing around with his valve amplifier at the time and suddenly there was a blue flash and some white smoke and he disappeared. The clock was about to strike midnight so I sorted out the amplifier. I plugged it back in and it sparked, crackled back to life and the valves (tubes) started to glow.

Suddenly Marty reappeared looking all excited. He said that when the smoke cleared after the explosion he had found himself in the studio with Lonnie Donegan, back in 1956. And then, just as they finished recording a take of Roving Rambler, he had a blackout and when he woke up, he was back in the UK with me again in 2020.

It did not make any sense to me or my other friend, “Doc“ Brown. Then I noticed that there was an alternative, previously unreleased take on the CD I was listening to. I played the track and I began to wonder if it might have been true. Have a listen….

Lonnie Donegan and Blues Harp

Who do you think is playing harp on the recording?

The answer is at the end.

It wasn’t Michael J. Fox!

More Skiffle information.

I have been through a few hundred Skiffle tracks from the 1950s from the UK, in the last few weeks, looking for any bands that featured the harmonica with little success.  What I found was that the only person playing anything like blues harp at this time was Cyril Davies.

Cyril recorded sessions with Beryl Bryden and his own group with Alexis Korner which played at the Skiffle, and the Barrelhouse and Blues Club at the Round House Club in Soho. Cyril eventually became the friends with Sonny Terry and James Cotton on their trips to the UK and he moved to amplified harp and in 1962 he and Alexis recorded the ground breaking “R&B at the Marquee” which helped to launch the British Blues Boom.

Other examples of harmonica in Skiffle bands include Chris Barber on the “Backstairs Session” and some melodic chromatic solos by John Wadley Original Barnstormers Spasm Band. In the mid 1960s the blues music scene split into pop music and a more traditional blues scene in the folk clubs where many good blues harp players could be heard.

Skiffle came out of the British interest in US country blues and traditional jazz. The interest in American music of the people went back before the Second World War and was heightened during the war period with the mixing of American servicemen, coloured and white, and their music and recordings, with the British people. One attraction was the associated dances. After the war, British traditional jazz bands were formed and regular venues were established where you could listen, dance and even get to play.

By the early 1950s this had become very popular and the bands of Ken Colyer, Humphrey Littleton, Sandy Brown and Chris Barber were well established. It was quite normal to have a beer break and in this interval, some of the musicians would get together and play songs by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the Jug Bands, and other country blues numbers. The instrumentation was very basic – guitars, a wash-tub bass and maybe a suitcase for percussion.  As the Chris Barber Band started to play concerts in the big theatres they included some of their interval “skiffle” music into their performances. These songs were led by their banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, who played guitar on these songs. It was the unexpected success of their recording of their concert version of Leadbelly’s “The Rock Island Line” which launched Skiffle as a mainstream music style.

The success of the recordings by professional bands led to the proliferation of skiffle bands in youth groups, church groups, scouts and schools. They were the sort people who had previously started harmonica groups.

The Pioneer Skiffle Group

The Pioneer Skiffle Group of Sidcup, Kent.
The Harmonica is an ideal instrument for taking the melody line with the usual skiffle backing of guitar, bass, drums and piano. The instrument is regularly featured by the popular Pioneer Skiffle Group, shown in this photograph sent to us by Mr. K. S. B. Clark of Sidcup. From Harmonica News, December 1957

The fire of the Skiffle movement burned brightly for three or four years but it became much more of a pop music style. Out of the ashes of Skiffle came many young people who had got a taste for performing and playing guitars and they started to make their own Rock and Roll and Blues music, the Beatles, the Shadows, Jimmy Page …

Skiffle still lives on. There is a band called The Lonegans who play around the South East of England and raise money for the MIND Charity. Lonnie Donegan’s son Peter is a well known musician and singer of Country Music.

The harp player on the Lonnie Donegan track is Joe (one-take) Filisko – !

Steve Jennings – Feb 1954 to Nov 2019 – a tribute

With contributions from Steve’s wife Josie, and his friends – Tom Hunter, Steve Jones, Rowena Millar, Johnny Mars, ‘Pip’ Rowland, and Paul Gillings.

Harmonica World

Stephen John Jennings or ‘Steve’ as he was universally known was one of the small group of volunteers who are responsible for the survival and success of the National Harmonica League (NHL) as we know it.

He joined the NHL in 1986, a few years after it separated from Hohner in 1981. Steve first started writing blues harp reviews for Harmonica World early in 1987 and by December that year he was editing the magazine, which he did until 1995. He was back on the committee as treasurer from 1998 to 2003 before stepping down to qualify as a Reader in his local Anglican church.

He attended NHL festivals in Bristol, with his wife Josie, as long as his deteriorating health would allow. He would talk long into the night, sitting on a stool in the hotel lounge.


Steve was born in London and attended Whitgift School in Croydon where he developed the sense of civic responsibility which he maintained all his life. In his early 20s, he enrolled at Rose Bruford College in London and gained a BA in Theatre Arts.

Steve, Josie and David
Steve, Josie and David

Steve was a musical child and played organ in church but blues harp became his chosen instrument in his twenties. London had lots of harp driven bands at that time and Steve was a regular at pub gigs by Shakey Vic, Johnny Mars and Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feelgood. He was a fast learner and gained valuable experience playing with them and other harp players like Steve Baker, Paul Rowan and Alan Glen.

By now Steve was married with a son and working as a systems analyst. He had joined the NHL and wanted to share his enthusiasm and knowledge. Becoming editor in 1987 gave him a great opportunity to do this and he transformed the magazine. Living in London gave him great access to visiting players and he interviewed many of them.

In autumn1991 he took a new job with Travis Perkins near Northampton and moved with his family to Rothersthorpe. Harmonica players were always welcome there. He remained as editor until 1995.

Steve learned chromatic and performed in a duo with his wife, Josie, who played a vineta (small chord). Over the years he regularly acted as a competition judge and organiser.

Following the retirement of Hohner’s harmonica technician, Willi Dannecker, Steve taught himself to maintain and repair harmonicas and carried out work for many top players, including Les Henry (Cedric) from The Three Monarchs. Steve also made and sold custom harmonica cases.

Sharp Dressed Man

In the early1990s Steve helped to teach blues to the Harp Start Children’s program in Great Yarmouth and developed the Blue Saturday events with Norman Ives and David Priestley, which enabled many players to improve their knowledge and performance of blues music. The workshops usually ended with a jam session with Steve’s blues band, Straight Eight, with guitarist Eric Sweetland (Tom Hunter) or Double or Quits with Dave Arrowsmith on guitar. When he performed, Steve was always smartly and snappily dressed and, unusually for a musician, punctual to a tee.

In addition to the Blue Saturday event, Steve produced a series of Blues Harp Breakdown cassette tapes under the name “Sonny Jay” each of which was dedicated to teaching a well-known instrumental like “Easy” by Walter Horton. He also produced some cassettes of backing and play-along tracks.

In 1991 he wrote a book with his friend Ken Howell for advanced players of the chromatic and blues harp called The Practical Harmonica Player. Its objective was to increase fluency in all keys.

He wrote a couple of books of Blues and R&B music arranged for harmonica which were published by Wise Publications (Music Sales) as well as a tuition book for beginners. The demands for a TAB version of the sheet music in books led Steve and Pat Missin to develop and publish SuperTAB. It is an attempt to bring some order to the way TAB is being constantly being reinvented by everyone. You can find more about SuperTAB here.

In the 1990s Steve was part of an attempt to develop a process to assess the ability of harmonica teachers – HTAB (Harmonica Teacher Accreditation Board). Unfortunately the project was never completed.

Steve was very interested in the chord harmonica family of instruments and about 10 years ago he wrote a detailed article about the history and development of the many types of chord instruments, which was published in the April/May and Oct/Nov 2012 issues of Harmonica World.

Even as his health was failing, Steve continued to play as a duo, The Junkyard Crew, with Bob Coombs on guitar.

Steve had lots of experience and memories of the history of the harmonica. At the time of his death I was digitising his favourite VHS tape of the NHL festival concert in Shirley, Birmingham, in 1988.

Steve the Reader

One of the last things Steve did was to apply to Sarum College, Salisbury, to study for an MA in Christian Liturgy. It has just been awarded to him, posthumously. Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coocjie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

When God made Steve he threw away the mould. He was an educated and determined man with an impish sense of humour who gave strength and support to the NHL for over 30 years, for which we are very grateful. I will miss his enthusiasm and support.

HarpTalk Tumblr Blog

I stepped down as editor of Harmonica World magazine after the August 2019 issue and I decided to do the simple blog I never seemed to have time to do before .

I used to use the blog to announce when the new magazine was being mailed out. Now I want to make it more of a diary where I can share bits of research or news.

Your can check it out here –

Blues Harps at Christmas

Blues harmonica players and their bands performing songs about Christmas. Carey Bell, Paul Oscher, Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, G Love, Sonny Boy Williamson, Canned Heat, Richard Sleigh, Eddie C Campbell, Mark Doyle and the Maniacs.

Track listing for Blues Harp at Christmas.

1 – Carey Bell – Christmas Train -0 0:00
2 – Paul Oscher – Christmas Blues – 03:35
3 – Paul Butterfield – Merry Christmas Baby – 07:58
4 – Sonny Boy Williamson II – Christmas Blues – 10:51
5 – Little Charlie – Christmas Time Again – 13:26
6 – G Love – Christmas Blues#2 – 16:39
7 – Sonny Boy Williamson – Christmas Morning Blues – 21:55
8 – Canned Heat – Christmas Blues – 25:18
9 – Richard Sleigh – Jingle Bells – 27:53
10 – Eddie C Campbell – Santa’s Messin’ With The Kid – 30:41
11 – Mark Doyle and the Maniacs – Merry Christmas Baby – 34:01

Jazzy Harmonica Arrangements at Christmas

Arrangements of Seasonal Christmas Music featuring harmonica players, Toots Thielemans, Jason Keene, Stevie Wonder, Tommy Morgan, Norton Buffalo, Rob Paparozzi, Tollack Ollestad and Chris Bauer.

Track Listing for Modern Harmonica Arrangements at Christmas

1 – Toots Thielemans – White Christmas – 00:00
2 – Jason Keene – Christmas Time is Here – 03:48
3 – Stevie Wonder – Christmas Song – 07:41
4 – Chris Bauer – Winter Wonderland – 10:48
5 – Tommy Morgan – Angels We Have Heard on High – 15:53
5 – Toots Thielemans, James Taylor – Christmas Song – 19:56
6 – Rob Paparozzi, John Carlini, Bill Robinson – Silent Night – 22:27
7 – Chris Bauer – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – 25:50
8 – Norton Buffalo, Kenny Loggins – Christmas Time is Here – 30:25
9 – Rob Paparozzi – Christmas Song – 32:52
10 – Tollak Ollestad, Cyrus Chestnut Trio – Skating – 38:07
11 – Toots Thielemans – Silent Night – 42:41