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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 12

...The 1960s had hardly begun before skiffle was bouncing off the walls and catching people up in an explosion of its magic. It was free and easy, enjoyable, joy in sound, although some of the songs had dark themes, such as Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, poor boy, you’re going to die… and Freight Train, freight train, going so fast.” It was easy to play, easy to listen to, and easy to enjoy...

Ronnie Bray recalls a time of joyous music.

Whatever Happened To The Cannonballs?

It was the great age of skiffle music. For those unfamiliar with this spirited form of musical expression, let me explain. Skiffle music was rhythmic, full-blooded, and boisterous. It made listeners clap their hands, stamp their feet, and smile. Most important was that it could be played by almost anyone who could maintain a strong two-step rhythm and knew a song all the way through, even if some of the words occasionally deviated from what was expected.

The 1960s had hardly begun before skiffle was bouncing off the walls and catching people up in an explosion of its magic. It was free and easy, enjoyable, joy in sound, although some of the songs had dark themes, such as Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, poor boy, you’re going to die… and Freight Train, freight train, going so fast.” It was easy to play, easy to listen to, and easy to enjoy.

I knew some Country Western songs, among which was the haunting Streamlined Cannonball.

“She moooooves alooooong like a caaaaaannoooon ball,
like a staaaaaar in heaaaaavenlyyyyyy fliiiayayigh”

And I had learned to play the ukulele under the gentle tutelage of Billie Ray Anderson of Green River, Wyoming, in our strange lodging at The Chapel, Knapp Road, Cheltenham, in 1956 when we served together as missionaries.

Together with the loveable and talented Jeff Cogan, who devised a more than adequate double-bass from a tea chest, a broom handle, and a length of someone’s clothes line, the willing Arthur Leonard on the – don’t laugh – double-bent brass curtain rail, and me having invested in a cheap banjo-ukulele that I played with gusto, The Cannonballs were ready to roll.

Our inaugural concert was on the stage of the Woodlands Street Chapel, in Bradford, Yorkshire, before a crowd of sixty. Our opening number should have been called Retribution, because it was swift and terrible. Yet, our fans appeared not to notice, having seemingly suspended musical judgement in favour of our having the gall to get up and do it in the first place. The motto of the British Special Air Services, Who Dares Wins, flashed through our minds, and we hit it hard like seasoned professionals. Way Down Upon the Swanee River never sounded so good!

Our next number was a solo, Cara Mia, to be sung by the diminutive Arthur Leonard. Laying down his brass curtain rail that played by tapping the ends together, he stepped to the front of the stage. Jeff, with his wide grin, plucked the clothesline. A deep vibration set the air abuzz, and I twanged the opening chord as Arthur’s cue to exercise his golden tonsils.

Sixty mouths closed in silent deference to Arthur’s operatic stance. A hundred and twenty ears moved ever so slightly forward on otherwise still heads as they strained to hear the slow romantic ballad, but in vain. Arthur’s considerable nerve failed him and spluttering the embarrassed explanation that it was “all a joke!” as he waved his hands vigorously back and forth across each other to cancel the event, he hurriedly resumed his performance position on the rail and his place in the line-up, tapping alone but vigorously as a cue to Jeff and me to “play something else for goodness sake!”

Because “the show must go on,” we got on with the show, picking up his cue without giving Arthur away as a victim of stage fright, and burst into the next in our extensive repertoire of four songs. This was Arthur’s swan song as a vocalist. We played again several times, receiving rave reviews in branch newsletters, but Arthur could not be induced to sing. He had found his niche on the curtain rail and he clung on to it like grim death.

The date of and reason for our disbandment are unremembered. We passed from history without any noticeable loss to music in particular or art in general. We missed a lot: we never got onto the drug scene like so many of our imitators in the pop business of that time. Trashing hotel rooms was out because we didn’t stay in hotels. No record deals, no offers of stardom in the post, even Decca Records refused to reject us as they had our contemporaries, The Beatles. There had been a brief opening in the window of opportunity when we held centre stage, received frantic if misdirected adulation, and gave enjoyment to a few people, most of who will be hard pressed to remember skiffle, let alone The Cannonballs.

Where are The Cannonballs now? I am retired from everything except writing, cooking, and the occasional speaking engagement, although my feet drag a little when I pass a guitar shop. Little Old Bass Player Jeff has been retired for several years and lives a quiet life with Barbara, his wife, and their two cats in a pretty part of Huddersfield. We hardly ever see each other now, as he no longer gets out to church. And Arthur, if he is making music, is making it out of this world where he has no fear of singing in front of others.

There is much to tell about Arthur Leonard and his humble origins in Turnbridge, Huddersfield. He was one of thirteen children born to Augustus Leonard and his wife in Daisy Street, a short row of back-to-back terraced houses running up from St Andrews’ Road to the canal towpath up a short cobbled street, that was impassable by vehicular transport on a Monday when every house strung its wash lines across the road and hung their household linens to dry. Augustus acquired a grand piano that occupied almost the whole of the living room. To get into the kitchen, one had to get under the piano and scrabble through the kitchen door. Scrambling under the grand piano may have been the full extent of Arthur’s musical education.

Notwithstanding the limitations of Arthur’s education, he held unassailable convictions. Perhaps one is a prerequisite for the other. He developed the Leonardine Hypothesis on human health, based on his view of the human body as a house with a drainage system. Clearing the drains was good for the house and so he contrived a diet, a liquid human drain cleaner that was introduced into the bowelary system every other day. From Arthur’s description, it also tasted like drain cleaner, but it granted immunity from disease and guaranteed longevity.

Arthur’s bete noir was cancer; it haunted him like a dogged spectre and he feared it. With this concoction, he convincingly pronounced, he would never get cancer and would live to be a hundred and thirty. With the ancient he was to cry, “The thing I greatly feared has come upon me!” He died aged sixty-six devastated by an invasive rapid cancer that smirked as it ate him.

That’s what happened to The Cannonballs, and it should teach us a lesson. The Cannonballs was an enjoyable experience. Wouldn’t it have been fun to reform and give The Cannonballs one last blast? The idea played about in my mind for some years, but I never did anything with it, and now it is too late. Time does not stand still, even when we do. If we have good ideas, we had better do something with them, or like Matthew’s grey lederhosen, a gift made by Granny Iris Mildred Müller Murray when he was less than a year old and laid by for when he grew, they may be taken out too late and be, alas, too small, too – impossible! For reasons such as these, The Cannonballs will never play again.

There are other things I intend to do, and I have them all on a list. They include visiting the lonely old lady across the road, finishing writing the books I have had on the stocks for so long, transplanting some shrubs from the back to the side garden, tidying my drawer, throwing the clutter out of my life, making peace with my enemies, and letting my grandchildren know how very much I love them.

I hope I do better with this list than I did with The Cannonballs, but time has a way of running out on us leaving us with too many important things left undone, goals not reached, hearts untouched, words left unspoken, and forgiveness unobtained.


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