Dave Arthur Remembers John Pilgrim

Thu, 04/01/2021 - 11:55
Posted in:

‘Another man done gone’

Nimble thimble-fingered Pilgrim,

Battered washboard on his knee,

Keeping time for Sonny Terry

And bluesman Brownie McGhee.

Washboard player Pilgrim is dead. The knowledgeable and perceptive obituarist of his Soho generation died, aged 87, just before Christmas 2020 in Ipswich General Hospital.

The human will is remarkable in its determination to cling to life against all odds, even sometimes against the desire of its host. Many, including Pilgrim, were surprised at his longevity, following bouts of cancer, two strokes, progressive blindness, deafness, vertigo, and the side effects of his treatments. Confined to bed in his book and record-lined workroom (he preferred ‘workroom’ to ‘study’) for his last two years, he summed up his life: “Talking is difficult, listening to music is impossible, I can’t read books any more, and I’m losing what bit of sight I’ve got. I’d like to put paid to it all. But, (he laughed) I’ll try and hang on till your Soho book comes out so I can say, ‘Look what the silly bastard has done!’”

He had contemplated Dignitas but, ironically, was too ill and weak to do anything about it. The decision was finally taken out of his hands.

John being such a common name in 1950s Soho, it became expedient to use nicknames or surnames. It helped if you were blessed with a memorable moniker such as Pilgrim. So, Pilgrim he became.

Throughout his life he was the unfortunate legatee of a Reverse-Midas Touch. Crocks of gold, both financial and emotional, often turning into crocks of something less appealing; a condition that did little to ease his somewhat fragile mental state. He suffered from depression, and there were periods requiring ‘time out from the world’. Bill Leader remembers that when running Jazz Services Unlimited, his record distribution business in Yorkshire, Pilgrim would every so often make himself a voluntary patient in the local hospital.  After a few days, hed start feeling a little lonely.  That was the point when Bill would get a phone call and a croaky voice that could only be Pilgrim would say, dolefully: “Allo Bill, its Pilgrim. Im in the bin again. Fancy a visit?”

This mental fragility was presumably responsible for his susceptibility to paranoia and his reaction to real or imagined slights or betrayals. Pianist Bob Hall, with whom he’d worked on the All-Star Medicine Show album, summed him up well: “He was an irascible fellow but his enthusiasm and love for the music made him generally a very congenial companion.”

The arts world is a cradle for fragile egos, this, coupled with the fact that Sohoites raised gossip, drinking, promiscuous and extra-marital sex to an art form, was a recipe for regular confrontations of a Jacobean nature. Yes, he could be rude, especially after a few drinks, but also generous, funny, and a good raconteur, and fiercely supportive of people he respected - and with whom he hadn’t fallen out! - such as the Queen of British blues Jo Ann Kelly, guitar maven Davey Graham, singer songwriter Lal Waterson, and Suffolk radio presenter Stephen Foster, on whose blues programme he was a regular contributor for 10 years, and thanks to whom he enjoyed a musical renaissance in Suffolk in the 1990s, achieving cult status with young blues players due to his earlier 70s work as washboard player for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

If critical of others, he could also be disarmingly self-denigrating, as in his comment, “Davy Graham was bored with London. And my wife was bored with me. So the two of them ran off to the South of France.” Or when recounting a Telegraph review of a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee concert, which asked, “Why so many numbers with John Pilgrim and his washboard, which was an intrusion?”

In the mid-1940s he left school and worked as a messenger for the Manchester Guardian while at the same time beginning to explore Soho and immersing himself in the nascent post-war traditional jazz and blues revival scene. Following a three-year interruption for military service in Egypt in the East Surrey Regiment, he returned to Soho to participate as a musician in the birth of modern popular music - the meteoric rise and brief blaze of glory that was skiffle, whose influence was immense and whose after-shock has resonated down the decades.

As the 50s swung into the 60s, Pilgrim, the first man to play washboard on a Top Ten hit (the Vipers’ Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O), stood Canute-like on the musical foreshore, and for the next four decades, washboard held above his head, defied the rising tide of drummers and drum machines. He remained an unreconstructed washboard player, partly out of necessity, it being his only instrument, but also because he believed in its value as a rhythm and percussion instrument with an honourable pedigree. 

He loved to play but, after the Ramblers and the Vipers, never again found a full-time band. Although he did get to play with some great musicians.

Our conversations in his last couple of years ranged over all aspects of his life - his academic achievements, his writing, Soho, his anarchy and pacifism, his partner Deborah and earlier less successful relationships, friends like John Jack, Harry Jackson, Ron Gould, and musicians with whom he was fortunate enough to have played - Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Johnnie Parker, Jo Ann Kelly, Jamie Rowan, Hull University’s Humberjug, the Hot Vultures, Simon Prager and Steve Rye, the Vipers and others. But the talk always returned to his first group, the City Ramblers, and amongst the papers he gave me to use for my ‘work in progress’ on Soho history was the following essay. Rather than me telling his story I thought it would be a perfect summation of his life, and of this memorial article, for him to tell the Ramblers story in his own words.

The City Ramblers - the beginnings

John Pilgrim

Pearman Street S.E.1. runs between Waterloo Road and Westminster Bridge Road, the next turning along from Bayliss Road, where the now notorious Yellow Door had its being. Pearman Street today is a gentrified tree-lined sequence of tarted up residences where, it is rumoured, MPs keep their doxies. In the early 1950s there were no trees and not much of anything else. It was a grim grey set of crumbling terraced houses, many of which had been condemned as unfit for human habitation after World War Two. Number 50 was next to a bombsite, where they sprayed stolen cars during the night. Behind it was a Dickensian bakery inhabited by an ancient woman who spent her days selling bread and her nights making lethal Christmas puddings for local sale. At the other end was a derelict chapel from which we borrowed an harmonium one night when we were in sudden need of a keyboard for Champion Jack Dupree.

An unlikely place for the start of anything one might have thought, but it was the starting point for the City Ramblers. Number 50 was owned by a painter, Russell Quay (his name hadn’t then acquired an ‘e’) and in 1954 was rented by Harry Jackson and myself. Harry played clarinet and banjo and intriguingly had discovered that a violin mute on a banjo resulted in a rough approximation to a guitar. I had played clarinet in the army and so occasionally the night air of South London was rendered hideous as we attempted reed duets. Then Russell lost his studio and moved in on us with his quattro (a four-string guitar) and gradually a repertoire began to form, with an instrumentation of guitar/banjo, quattro, and myself moving to washboard.

Russell already specialised in cockney songs and we added jug band numbers like Boodle Am Shake and such blues as we came across in those days. Willikins And His Dinah was always a good crowd pleaser, with its piled-up negatives - ‘never not by no means disobey your governor’ - and Cocaine Bill And Morphine Sue (later rewritten by Donegan as Have A Drink On Me) and jazz pops of the 1920s like Sister Kate. Harry did Froggie Went A Courting and I sang The Foggy Dew (to use the term loosely), Just Another Woman and a variety of blues which tended to start… ‘Woke up this morning…’ There was no idea of ‘authenticity’ - everything was rendered in an extraordinary patois evolving from educated cockney, gutter suburban and that all-purpose accent used by children - London Schools.

Somehow, we must have made the sound vaguely acceptable as we began to play at the odd party and some of those new-fangled coffee houses. A favourite was the Nucleus in Monmouth Street. There is a snapshot of Harry, Russell and myself playing with the unmistakable decor of the Nucleus behind us. Other times we went busking, joined occasionally by the late Redd Sullivan, whose impressions of a Kansas City blues shouter were rather more convincing than my own.

At some point Harry Jackson got married, moved to a respectable Hampstead flat and began the career that was to climax as the Guardian’s Washington correspondent. He was replaced by John Lapthorne, a student architect needing somewhere to live. He took up the trademark of the Ramblers, the cheese-box bass, and as a result was the one who usually got arrested when fleeing the police from underneath Charing Cross Arches - a traffic-free busking zone in those days. There were no shops or homeless there then - just a wide expanse where a crowd could gather and sometimes dance. Those were joyless days in London and the mere fact that a dozen or so people had gathered was enough for arrests to be attempted. We would run, but Lapthorne was handicapped. I still remember looking back from Hungerford Lane and seeing Lapthorne, cheese-box bass, and the evening’s takings crashing to the ground as one of Bow Street’s finest brought him down with a flying tackle.

The first Soho Fair in 1955 provided an opportunity for hassle-free busking and gave us our next permanent addition, Hylda Sims. We were strolling around playing in odd corners when we came across the red-skirted horde of the London Youth Choir singing The Saints. Uninvited we joined in and Russell literally pulled Hylda from their somewhat formal ranks and convinced her that life with a rising young artist and a bunch of strolling players would be more entertaining for her than singing choral arrangements of folk songs. She provided a much-needed second guitar, a female voice, and a host of songs like Round And Round The Picket Line and Banks Of Marble. We played in all-night cafes in Covent Garden, outside South Kensington Tube Station and in whatever pubs would give us a few drinks in exchange for a few songs. One regular spot where the landlord was really generous was off Tottenham Court Road - the Perseverance I think it was called – where we played Sunday mornings. One week we all had sore throats and decided that rum and blackcurrant was the only way to cope with this affliction and keep the singing going. The amiable landlord kept pushing this disgusting drink across the bar and we gradually began to decline from our none-too-high musical standards into heterophonic chaos.

Standing at the end of the bar with a pained expression on his face and a Guinness in one hand was a young advertising executive, clutching a ten-inch LP of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five. His name was Wally Whyton. When I later joined forces with him in the Vipers I used to tell him that it was the free drinks he’d seen the Ramblers getting that gave him the idea of being a performer. He always replied that the real reason was that we were so drunkenly dreadful that day he became convinced he could do better. Anyhow, he bought his first guitar off that same landlord.

I can’t remember when we started at the Princess Louise. I do remember that one night Hylda and Russell had been there while I was having a party in Pearman Street. They came back with Diz Disley about midnight and he sat on the only seat available - underneath the cage where I used to keep my pet monkey when the tiny flat became too crowded. Everyone except Diz knew better than to sit in this particular spot, but Diz was new to the place. Diz took up his guitar and went into Abdul Abulbul Amir.  Halfway through the rendition, a thin liquid started falling on his head and running down his face. Heroically he finished the song - only to discover that the monkey had been expressing his disapproval of the performance in the only way open to him. Mind you, that was nothing compared to what he did to Lonnie Donegan.

The word ‘skiffle’ wasn’t really in general use then and if pressed we used to describe ourselves as a spasm-band - taking the name from the turn of the century New Orleans busking groups led by such luminaries as the legendary ‘Stalebread Charley’ Lacoume. Nor did we have a name, although one would be improvised if a prestige job came along. One such was a chiropodists’ ball. I don’t know who’d booked us but we turned up at this somewhat formal affair and started playing until a horrified gentleman in evening dress came steaming up to stop us. This was the only gig for which we ever had a formal contract. It was duly produced and we were paid to go away!

Deciding that it was all due to name confusion, we sat down in historic Pearman Street to decide on a permanent one. We wanted to give the idea that we were a genuine busking band like Stalebread Charley’s, and various ideas were trotted forth. Thinking about the way we strolled around London playing where we could, I came up with the London Perambulators. Quay and Hylda prudently decided that City Ramblers was closer to the image we wanted to project and so one of the most influential and original groups of the skiffle era was born.

Lapthorne around this time married an heiress he’d met at one of the parties we had played. He was replaced by Bo Bo Buquet who really did turn the cheese-box bass into a musical instrument. I started playing with the bunch who became the Vipers and with the advent of the Two I’s became unavailable for Ramblers’ gigs. I regretted it later, mind you. While the Vipers were playing such exotic gigs as Wigan and Huddersfield, the Ramblers were playing boring old Antwerp, Berlin and Brussels.

The Ramblers were a formative influence on many young musicians and showed a sparkling originality in both sound and material that made them an ongoing pleasure as skiffle began to get stereotyped. Sadly, they recorded only infrequently and, as far as I know, never very well. Just as some people are not photogenic, so the Ramblers failed to get across on record, at least those recordings I’ve heard. They should not be forgotten though - they were among the best and were certainly the most original of any street band to come out of the 1950s. I for one am proud to be part of their story.