Johnny Longstaff was one of the millions affected by unemployment in Britain during the 1930s. He came from Stockton-on-Tees in the north-east of England, leaving school at 14. After losing his apprenticeship as a sheet metal worker due to an industrial accident at the age of 15, he attached himself to the National Hunger March of 1934. Remaining in London afterwards, he moved between poorly paid jobs and unemployment, suffering poor housing conditions and homelessness. He joined the Labour League of Youth, opposed the blackshirts in Cable Street and in 1937 volunteered for the International Brigades to fight fascism in Spain.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff combines oral testimony from Johnny himself, narration of the events, powerful graphic animation and songs from the folk band the Young’uns. With Lorne Campbell’s clever stage direction, this imaginative synthesis proved an evocative reconstruction of one of the 20th century’s great turning points. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff humanised the fight against fascism in the 1930s and dramatically illustrated the traditions of working-class internationalism in the North East of England.
This theatre piece illustrates oral history’s capacity to allow the public to reimagine history from below and connect with authentic personal experiences of the past. The director used interviews with Johnny conducted in 1984 that are archived in the Imperial War Museum in London.So the performance highlights the riches of the IWM’s sound archive, which holds 33,000 recordings themed around conflict, mainly interviews with First and Second World War veterans.
The folk trio at the centre of this dramatic work–the Young’uns—performed admirable renditions of labour movement classics and original material. They made a strong impression upon the audience, who were clearly moved by the tale of a 17-year-old lad from Stockton who volunteered to fight Franco’s fascists in Spain. The band are campaigning for a permanent memorial* to be established in Stockton to the volunteers like Johnny who travelled to Spain in 1937 and 1938. The folk opera moves from Newcastle’s Northern Stage to tour both Liverpool and Hull and I would encourage anyone who has the chance to witness this singular and poignant performance. This production demonstrates a model in practice of how to overcome what Michael Frisch called oral history’s ‘deep dark secret’: that once an interview is over oral testimony remains buried in archives.
Dr Matt Perry is Reader in Labour History at Newcastle University. He has research interests in British and French labour and social history, particularly in the fields of protest and social memory.
* A plaque acknowledging the International Brigade volunteers has been on display in Stockton since 1992. The current campaign is for a more formal and permanent memorial. Funds are being raised through at Just Giving campaign, with a dedication ceremony planned for September – the anniversary of the Battle of Stockton.