Whenever skiffle comes up in a conversation, folks mention Lonnie Donegan — and maybe Van Morrison — as if just the sound of the name should be the end of the conversation. Thankfully, Billy Bragg decided that a proper history of skiffle — including its influence on him and his own music — needed to be written to illustrate not only the roots and evolution of the music but also its impact on the music of the Beatles, the music of the British invasion, and punk rock. A cracking good storyteller, Bragg brings to life the events and the people that brought skiffle to the world in his entertaining and enlightening Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber).
Why a book on skiffle, though? Could anyone really be interested in this music or care about its history? Well, skiffle changed the music scene in Britain from one ruled by the crooners of the '30s and '40s to one where the guitar reigned. The guitar-driven sound became the hallmark of British rock from the boys from Liverpool, Cream, and the Hollies to The Clash and Faces, to mention only a few. Yet, as Bragg points out on the very first page of his book: “Skiffle exists in the dead ground of British pop culture, between the end of the war and the rise of the Beatles. It’s a landscape dominated by Elvis and his British acolytes — Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde — but beyond Tommy Steele, the terrain falls away quickly … the vast majority of its practitioners were boys in their early to mid-teens, whose amateur performances in youth clubs, school gyms and church halls left no permanent mark on our culture … there is little tangible evidence of the contribution made by tens of thousands of skiffle-mad kids, save for a few black-and-white photos of earnest youths posting with washboards, tea-chest basses and cheap acoustic guitars.”
A few skiffle artists climbed the charts, notably Lonnie Donegan, whose version of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” kicked off the entire skiffle craze, and who became synonymous with the music. Donegan ruled the charts for a few years in the mid- to late '50s, but he eventually became, as Bragg observes, a parody of himself, and skiffle receded into the distance by the mid-1960s. Yet the seed had been planted; the number of guitars sold in Britain rocketed from 5,000 in 1950 to 250,000 in 1957; and those teens had been turned onto guitar and the power of the “high-tempo three-chord thrash” by skiffle.
As Bragg points out, “skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history. Not willing to sit passively and wait to be told what to listen to, this first generation of British teens took the initiative and created a do-it-yourself music that crossed over racial and social barriers. Taking their songs from black blues, gospel and calypso and white folk and country music, and their instruments from the jug bands and spasm groups that played in the streets of the American South, the skiffle groups mixed them together to create a sound that had never been heard in these islands before. In doing so, they faced resistance from generational forces that sought to control and dictate youth culture.”
Bragg finds the roots of skiffle in trad jazz, a movement that found its inspiration in the music of New Orleans from the early 20th century. “Bill Colyer was the Godfather of Skiffle. He was present at its birth and presided over its christening, naming this purely British phenomenon after a distant American relative of whom he was very fond. This role fell to him due to his deep knowledge of American roots music, stretching back to when he began collecting jazz records as a teenager.” Bragg develops the story of skiffle by introducing us to many of its most important players, such as the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, Nancy Whiskey, and the Vipers, and he chronicles the ways that American folk musicians such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Guy Carawan, and Peggy Seeger, among others, who were in London during the late '50s and early '60s, added to the mix.
Bragg illustrates the deep influence of skiffle on British music (and also illustrates the circular character of musical influence: British musicians incorporate American music, develop their own singular musical style out of it, and then bring this music back to American shores in the mid-'60s) by quoting George Harrison: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles; therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”
Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World gives us one more reason to love Billy Bragg. He’s a passionate advocate for free speech, human rights, and solidarity with others, especially the working class. In his own way he’s an archivist, preserving the history of folk music in his own music and on the album of Woody Guthrie songs that he and Joe Henry released a few years ago. Because of his sense that we must know our history so we’ll be able better to understand ourselves, Bragg tells a rattling good tale in this book of the music that played such a crucial role in the evolution of rock and roll.