127. ‘Michael’, by The Highwaymen

We begin our next chart-topper with a whistle. We haven’t had a whistle-y #1 for a while, maybe not since the ‘Age of Whistling’ back in 1957-’58. And then an oh-so gentle, almost soothing acoustic guitar comes in…

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Michael, by The Highwaymen (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 12th – 19th October 1961

Back in my last post, I asked you to imagine this year, 1961, as a huge variety show, with all manner of artists on the bill. Well, keep that image in mind and picture, as The Shadows wrap up their little Hawaiian interlude, the curtains parting to reveal a forest backdrop, a pile of leaves and upturned logs, a ‘fire’ made from strips of crepe paper and a fan, and five fresh-faced boys – The Highwaymen.

The tune is instantly recognisable, by anyone who’s visited a church, or been a Boy Scout, or attended a Primary School… Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah, Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah… Just when you thought 1961 couldn’t get any more eclectic – we’re getting a hymn!

Fifty percent of this song is that very chorus, repeated over and over, and over. In between, each Highwayman takes turns in singing a single-line verse: Sister help to trim the sails, Hallelujah… The river Jordan is chilly and cold, Hallelujah… The river is deep and the river is wide, Milk and honey on the other side… Hallelujah, Hallelujah and Hallelujah… It ends with the same haunting whistles that kicked us off. And that’s it.

Wiki lists this as ‘Collegiate Folk’, and I am 100% certain that this is the first and only ‘Collegiate Folk’ record to top the UK Singles Charts. It’s a very accurate genre title too, as all five Highwaymen were undergraduate students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Under what circumstances they went from a mere college band to trans-Atlantic chart-toppers is unclear. It really does beg the question…

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…what in seven hells is this doing atop the UK hit parade? If you thought The Temperance Seven or Shirley Bassey’s show-tunes were a bit on the random side then this is completely out of the left-field. At the same time, though, I will at some point have to realise and accept that literally anything can top the singles chart. We’ve had some weird number ones; and there is weirder to come, trust me on that.

And yet… This may be a weird chart-topper; but it’s a very simple, very normal song. Kinda dull. You can understand why Benny Hill, and Mr Blobby, and The Teletubbies – with all their technicolour silliness – have UK #1s more than you can understand this becoming the biggest selling single in the country for one week in the autumn of ’61. The five boys in this band – Dave, Bob, Chan and two Steves – are spectacular in their ordinariness. They look like the sweetest bunch of apple-pie lovin’, church-goin’, all-American boys-next-door. A ‘highwayman’, as far as British readers will be aware, was a 17th-18th century armed robber, which makes it look like an odd choice of band name for such sweet looking lads. Even their voices are – how to put this nicely? – fairly ordinary. But what do I know – maybe their ordinariness is what won people over? They are clearly not trying to be Elvis, or Liberace, or even Cliff, and people do like an everyman with an acoustic guitar…

I have to admit that – as one of the most irreligious people around – I want to hate this record. But I can’t. It’s a nice song. It’s soothing. I’ll put it on next time I can’t sleep. And The Highwaymen didn’t much bother the charts after this. All but one of them returned to their studies after the success died down. But maybe, just maybe, the folk scene that grew so big in the mid-to-late sixties – The Byrds, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary, even Bob Dylan – can perhaps trace a small part of its popularity back to this unlikely smash hit.

Two other things to mention before we’re done… One: that these Highwaymen are in no way related to the Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash supergroup (though they did try to sue them for appropriating their name). And two: the fact that this great African-American gospel hymn was white-washed to such success at the height of the US Civil Rights movement perhaps says something about American society at the time… Something that I am in no way qualified to discuss and will just leave hanging here…

That aside, I’m just excited to see what on earth 1961 will throw up at the top of the UK singles charts next! Pan-pipes? The can-can? Mongolian throat-singing?? Whatever’s coming – bring it on!

5 thoughts on “127. ‘Michael’, by The Highwaymen

  1. Pingback: 131. ‘Moon River’ by Danny Williams – The UK Number 1s Blog

  2. Pingback: Recap: #121 – #149 – The UK Number 1s Blog

  3. Pingback: 163. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors – The UK Number Ones Blog

  4. Pingback: 188. ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, by The Seekers – The UK Number Ones Blog

  5. Pingback: 199. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, by The Byrds – The UK Number Ones Blog

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