#112: My Old Man’s A Dustman by Lonnie Donegan

Peak Month: June 1960
11 weeks on Vancouver’s CKWX chart
Peak Position #1
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart
YouTube.com: “My Old Man’s A Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer)
Lyrics: “My Old Man’s A Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer)

Anthony James Donegan was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1931. His dad was a violinist in the Glasgow-based Scottish National Orchestra. Donegan became a fan of swing jazz and country music as he grew. When he was fourteen he got his first guitar. In the late forties “Tony” Donegan had learned how to play the banjo. Bandleader Chris Barber heard Donegan and had him audition for his Trad Jazz band. Tony Donegan played with the Trad Jazz band for a few years until he was called up for National Service that included three months of military training. While in the National Service in Southampton, England, Donegan played drum in Ken Grinyer’s Wolverines Jazz Band. In 1952 he began the Tony Donegan Jazzband. On June 28, 1952, Donegan’s band opened a concert for Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Johnson was an American jazz and blues singer and pioneer of jazz guitar and jazz violin. Tony Donegan decided to bill himself as Lonnie Donegan in tribute to Lonnie Johnson.

In 1954 Donegan was featured on the Chris Barber Jazz Band album, New Orleans Joys, featuring the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. Donegan often played on a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar. In 1954 Lonnie Donegan recorded an song by American blues singer named Leadbelly. The song was the “Rock Island Line”. The song became a Top Ten hit peaking at #8 in the UK in 1955 and #8 in the USA in 1956. Donegan soon became known as the “king of skiffle.”

Skiffle was a genre with roots in African-American improvisational jug band music in New Orleans. By the 1910’s the word skiffle was slang for a rent party where a band would be hired and a hat would be passed to pay their rent. Instruments in a jug band often included a washboard, empty jugs played with buzzed-lips to produce a trombone-like tone, a washtub bass or gutbucket, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, comb and paper kazoos, banjo and guitar. The first use of the term skiffle on a recording was in 1925 by Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers.

Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle sound inspired John Lennon to form The Quarrymen in 1957 as a skiffle band before they morphed into the Silver Beatles and finally The Beatles.

In the late ’50’s and early ’60’s Lonnie Donegan had a string of Top Ten hits in the UK. These include “Stewball”, “The Grand Coulee Dam”, “Tom Dooley” (UK #3 for Donegan and #5 for the Kingston Trio), “The Battle Of New Orleans” (UK #2 Donegan and #16 Johnny Horton), “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck Of The John B)” and “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O”. He also had three #1 hits in the UK beginning with “Cumberland Gap” and “Gamblin’ Man” in 1957, and “My Old Man’s A Dustman” in 1960.

My Old Man's A Dustman by Lonnie Donegan

In the song, a “dustman” is slang for someone who empties waste bins, garbage bins, garbage pails, or trash cans. The subtitle of the song is “Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer”. In this case, the dustman is sloppy on the job: “So when he picks their bins up, he spills some on the step.” The ‘dustman’ wears hobnail boots. These are heavy boots with short nails driven into the bottom to protect against wear. The “dustman” is referred to by the narrator (his son) as “a skint.” A skint is a word to describe someone who is a pauper, penniless, hard-up, threadbare, strapped and down-on-his-luck. He wears “cor-blimey trousers.” Cor-blimey trousers are trousers which are fit only for wearing while carrying out especially grubby jobs – such as gardening, sweeping the chimney or emptying dustbins.

As well, the singer’s dad is 86-years-old. However, though there may be snow on the roof, there’s still fire in the furnace. The 86-year-old dustman is about to get married. He lives in a Council Flat, public housing of dubious reputation in post WWII Britain. On one occasion, the dustman finds a tiger’s head and takes it away. The lyrics explain: “Just then from out a window, a voice began to wail. It said “Oi! Where’s me tiger’s head? Four foot from his tail.” (Apparently, the dustman hadn’t noticed the tiger’s head was attached to the rest of the body , tiger’s carpet).

“My Old Man’s A Dustman”, while making light of a father’s situation in his mid-80’s, is a story about a senior citizen who still needs to get some work to have enough to cover the basic essentials. In the backdrop of “My Old Man’s A Dustman”, for some senior citizens in the United Kingdom after World War II, life was very hard.

“My Old Man’s A Dustman” peaked at #1 in Vancouver, and Toronto, #2 in Kalamazoo (MI), and Portland (ME), #11 in Topeka (KS), and #12 in Montreal.

Donegan scored his second Top Ten hit in the USA with “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight)” which was a #3 hit in the UK and peaked at #14 in Vancouver in 1961. The song had first appeared on the Vancouver pop charts in July 1960 with little success. But the positive response it gained in the USA in 1961 put it back on the charts in Vancouver in the fall of the year.

Meanwhile, Lonnie Donegan had another Top Ten hit in Vancouver in the summer of 1961 with “Have A Drink On Me”. The song was also cowritten by Lonnie Donegan and Peter Buchanan. Both “My Old Man’s A Dustman” and “Have A Drink On Me” were featured tracks on Lonnie Donegan’s 1962 album More! Tops With Lonnie. The liner notes gushed,

No one can doubt that the secret of Lonnie Donegan’s redoubtable success is consistency. Ever since he first broke open the pop scene in 1956 with his version of “Rock Island Line”, he has remained at the top of the show business ladder, while many of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. His success stretches to all fields of entertainment…in fact, wherever he goes he breaks records.

Next, Donegan did a cover of the Highwaymen’s “Michael Row The Boat” which climbed to #6 on the UK charts in 1961. In 1962 his seventeenth and final Top Ten hit in the UK was prophetically titled “The Party’s Over”. He had one more song on the UK charts that decade titled “Pick A Bale Of Cotton” which climbed to #11 later that year. He released seventeen more singles between 1962 and 1976, but none of these appeared on the pop charts on either side of the Atlantic.

Lonnie Donegan and the other skiffle recording artists were displaced by The Beatles and the Mersey Beat. As Donegan failed to break back into the charts he saw new recording artists like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer And the Dakotas, The Searchers, The Animals, The Honeycombs, The Hollies, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Rolling Stones, The Kings and the Dave Clark Five taking his place.

While his skiffle music fell out of fashion, a song he wrote titled “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” was a hit for Tom Jones in 1967. The song peaked at #2 in the UK and #4 in Vancouver. In the ’70’s he played in the American cabaret circuit. Donegan made a number of albums with Chris Barber in the mid-70’s into the ’80’s. He had a heart attack in 1978.

In 1984 Lonnie Donegan appeared on stage in London in the cast of Mr. Cinders. Donegan suffered a second heart attack in the 1990’s. In 2000 Lonnie Donegan appeared on Van Morrison’s album The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998. Looking back on his music career with The Who, Roger Daltry remarked, “I wanted to be Elvis Presley when I grew up, I knew that. But the man who really made me feel like I could actually go out and do it was a chap by the name of Lonnie Donegan.”

Donegan was part way through a tour in the UK in 2002 when he died on November 3rd of a heart attack. Before he died, Donegan had accepted an invitation to perform at a concert scheduled on November 29, 2002, at the Royal Albert Hall to mark the first anniversary of the death of George Harrison.

October 28, 2022
Ray McGinnis

Robin Denselow, “Lonnie Donegan: The Founding Father of British Pop, he Sang his way from Traditional Jazz Through Skiffle Hits to a Novelty Song About Chewing Gum,” Guardian, November 5, 2002.
Lonnie Donegan Obituary,” San Diego Union-Tribune, November 6, 2002.
Bob Boilen, “Your Song Changed My Life: Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page On Lonnie Donegan,” NPR, April 26, 2016.
Patrick Humphries, Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock & Roll, The Robson Press, 2012.
Sensational Sixty,” CKWX 1130 AM, Vancouver, BC, June 13, 1960.

For more song reviews visit the Countdown.

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