Van Morrison on going back to his skiffle roots, writing for Kenneth Branagh's Belfast and how David Bowie nearly went Into the Mystic...

Van Morrison spent the Covid pandemic railing against lockdown and vaccine policies, getting into a legal battle with Stormont's then-health minister Robin Swann and recording an album setting out his views on what he sees as a fight against totalitarianism. Ever prolific, the legendary musician is returning to his skiffle roots for his upcoming album and concerts. It's the latest turn in a creative odyssey that started in a Hyndford Street alleyway in the 1950s, Morrison tells Richard Purden

Van Morrison has gone back to his earliest musical roots for his upcoming album, Moving On Skiffle. Picture by Bradley Quinn Photography
Van Morrison has gone back to his earliest musical roots for his upcoming album, Moving On Skiffle. Picture by Bradley Quinn Photography

VAN Morrison's forthcoming album Moving On Skiffle, his 44th long-player, takes him back to some of his earlier inspirations and his boyhood home of Hyndford Street in east Belfast.

I visited the exact spot with well-known Vanatic, Belfast tour guide Al Bodkin. He showed me the back entry where Van first became inspired by the skiffle movement that swept the UK back in the 1950s.

After watching Van the Man perform at an intimate preview show of Moving On Skiffle at the Europa Hotel, he explained when the energy of the movement first hit him.

"I had a neighbour, Jim Tosh, at the back entry. When I was a kid he would sing a lot of Hank Williams, he was popular in that area, and people had old 78 recordings, it was all part of the backdrop that influenced me personally."

A band soon assembled playing along on washboard, harmonica and tea chest bass. Morrison was not yet a teenager when he formed The Sputniks but he was already well on his way to a life in music.

The record celebrates an eclectic range of songs, many from a book Van picked up aged 12 back in 1957. "It was the Alan Lomax and Peggy Seeger American Folk Guitar songbook," he explains.

Post-war and pre-Troubles Belfast was in many ways an idyllic childhood that Morrison has distilled in many of his songs. Van would spend his days in the Atlantic Records emporium where his father George expanded his blues collection with the likes of Lead Belly, a singer-songwriter born in 1888 who was dead before the 1950s even began.

Glasgow's Lonnie Donegan would change the course of rock n' roll when he introduced Rock Island Line, a traditional song closely associated with Lead Belly, to a new generation of teenagers, inspiring The Beatles, Morrison and many others.

"He opened the door for kids like me to walk through. Instead of doing just the folk music thing, Lonnie Donegan showed us you could actually have a band or group instead of being the lone folk singer," says Morrison.

"I intuitively understood what he was creating, I knew that it was what I wanted to do. It was like an explosion."

Before Van found chart success with Them he became part of the Irish showband phenomenon.

"Well, that was more about the endurance of playing the average gig which was about three hours – the extreme version was five hours long. There would be dancing and you had to learn a lot of material people knew and we also began to play rock n' roll," he recalls.

"It was fairly new and was really fresh. The showbands took over because of the ballrooms and big dances, in terms of rock n' roll they were called beat groups at the time.

"The promoters didn't want four-piece bands, they wanted horns and more of a show with a whole variety of stuff. There would also be different singers, some would sing country music, others would do the rock n' roll stuff and you would have a Perry Como type of singer so you had about three different styles at least."

Still only 17, Van set off on his first European tour playing a range of instruments. At the Europa gig he shows he's lost none of his versatility, playing mouth organ, saxophone and guitar.

He also absorbed music from his mother Violet at an early age. She would be regularly "tuning up the wireless" throughout his childhood, playing an instrument or leading family sing-songs.

Morrison starts his set with his new album's opener, Freight Train. Originally by Elizabeth Cotten, Glaswegian Nancy Whiskey had a top 5 hit with the track backed by Chas McDevitt in 1957 when Van was still at school.

Moving on Skiffle is released on March 10, and backed up with a series of concerts
Moving on Skiffle is released on March 10, and backed up with a series of concerts

Moving On Skiffle closes with Green Rocky Road, another set highlight that saw Van giving spontaneous instructions to the band. The track features a guest spot on fiddle from Seth Lakeman who brings a beautiful Celtic quality to the cut: "Well that's Seth, he doesn't sound like anyone else as far as I'm concerned."

If Van's gigs at the Europa are anything to go by, he looks like he's having a good time. It's a well-known fact that venues are an essential part of the Belfast Cowboy's live experience. Further shows in the city have been lined up at the Ulster Hall and Whitla Hall in April.

"With venues like the Europa, I know the guy Howard (Hastings), we've done all the hotels because of that connection but as far as the others go it's just what's available, there's a lot of factors."

While Van is enjoying his current return to skiffle, he's continued to write songs late into his career inspired by his hometown. Down to Joy was written for Kenneth Branagh's coming-of-age film Belfast.

"I had seen part of the film and I went over to where Ken is from in north Belfast," he shares.

"I drove around the area and remembered that I used to visit that area in the 1960s. I had some friends there and wrote it from what I remember of that time hanging out and playing music."

Unlike many musicians, Sir Van, who turns 78 in August, has a strong recollection of the past; it's a lesser-known fact that he worked with David Bowie's essential side-man and arranger Mick Ronson.

"Oh yeah that was really good, it was great (working with Ronson). There's some great stuff we recorded, I don't know if we have the tapes but there's some bootleg stuff on the internet that is very good," he says of the spontaneous sessions.

"I knew him from the David Bowie period and he was working on the rock n' roll scene. I met him a couple of times and we got together with Dr John."

Van Morrison, the man with the golden microphone, has gone back to his earliest musical roots for his upcoming album, Moving On Skiffle. Picture by Pablo Torres
Van Morrison, the man with the golden microphone, has gone back to his earliest musical roots for his upcoming album, Moving On Skiffle. Picture by Pablo Torres

Bowie also told Morrison he planned to record one of his most popular songs. He had already paid a tribute to Van on his 1973 album Pin Ups when he cut Here Comes the Night, a song written by producer Bert Berns and recorded by Morrison's former band Them.

"He told me he was going to do Into The Mystic and had been rehearsing it," recalls Morrison.

It has been suggested Van first planned to release a skiffle album as far back as 1976: "There's some stuff that has not been released that's coming out at some point. I recorded with Lonnie Donegan in the 90s and there are more shows out there."

Van refers to The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998 recorded with Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan. The record also featured Alan Sticky Wicket, who has returned to Van's line up on washboard and percussion. He brought something of Lonnie Donegan's spirit to the show by sporting one of the colourful Glaswegian's old stage shirts.

"The band bring their energy and enthusiasm and put themselves into it," says Van of a mesmerising live show that is not to be missed.

Moving On Skiffle is released on March 10

Van Morrison returns to Belfast to play the Ulster Hall on April 5 followed by two shows at the Whitla Hall on April 6 and 7