The Infinite Jukebox: Roger Whittaker’s ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’


The posts appearing here under the heading of The Infinite Jukebox have obeyed no order, scheme or structure. After the first three songs, all-time favourites, they’ve been written in fits and starts, sometimes a handful at a time, as memory, inspiration and the discovery of something to say about them has been made. They have been posted in order of writing, nothing else.
Roger Whittaker’s ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’ is the 100th post in this series. If there were any order, it would have been the first. Because it was. First, that is.
Everybody has a first single that they bought or, as in my case, their mother bought for them because they didn’t have any money of their own. 6s 8d at Sykes’s Records, Lane End Road, Burnage.
I haven’t always been prepared to admit to that. In fact, most of my life I’ve kept schtum: no self-respecting music-lover wants to make that kind of thing widely known and usually I’ve either kept a decent silence or else pretended my second single, eight months later and much more respectable, being a Northern Soul Club track, was the first one. I didn’t buy it because it was a Northern Soul track, mind you, as you may remember from this.
Roger Whittaker was a South African light entertainer, noted mostly for his whistling before he had a hit with this (the b-side, ‘Storm’, is one of his whistle-jobs). He was an immaculately turned-out, buttoned jacket prematurely middle-aged man with a perfectly groomed beard and a rich, deep voice with clear enunciation: not your average pop star of the months before the Underground started climbing overground, yet not a Tom Jones or an Engelbert. Whittaker lacked passion in his singing. He was almost didactically precise but the words could have been pages from a dictionary for all the feeling he put into them.
‘Durham Town’ entered the Top Thirty at no 28 on 22 November 1969 and peaked at no. 12 a couple of weeks into January 1970. It was a bloodless song, light enough for a kid in a family who hated pop, who was only slowly progressing from the kiddies’ songs on Junior Choice though I’m not making excuses for myself. Sometimes I can’t understand what on earth made it appeal to me, and at others I hear clearly the things the song wants to express, in the chorus, the words and tune that Whittaker can’t entirely flatten.
Because Whittaker has lived his whole life in Durham Town, watching people and things go, leaving him behind, and now it’s his turn. He has to leave, shedding everything he’s known, that he’s buried himself within. He’s not leaving a town, he’s leaving his cocoon, going away from home and comfort into the unknown and unknowable.
And if that isn’t a description of growing up, what is?
Besides, in a world where songs were about San Francisco and Tulsa, there was a lot to be said for a song about somewhere in England, somewhere I might conceivably go (which I did, but not until 22 years later).
Amusingly, I still have vivid memories of the song featuring in Junior Points of View, a five minutes BBC letters page of the air, in which an indignant Durham youngster took ‘Durham Town’ to task for its many geographical errors, like the fact Durham was a City, not a Town, and how Whittaker couldn’t possibly have sat on the banks of the River Tyne when the river running through Durham is the Wear. Such things matter up there.
But ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’ has a place in this list for what it was: the first. And if the first is last, last in this first century of songs and to now be compiled in book form, it still has that place. They can’t all be supercool, but they can never denied the place in your memory.

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