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Skiffle: The musical revolution that time forgot

26 February 2018

Britain was once home to 50,000 skiffle bands, including early incarnations of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. WILLIAM COOK talks to author and musician Billy Bragg about the near-forgotten subculture and his new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.

Northampton skiffle group The Dominoes, ca. 1959 | Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Skiffle is the music that time forgot, and Billy Bragg thinks it’s high time we knew a lot more about it. He’s been a big fan for years, and now he’s written a lively history of this neglected genre - a subculture which paved the way for bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

For Bragg, the book was part labour of love, part sabbatical. He spent hours in the British Library, rifling through back issues of old music mags like Melody Maker, Jazz Journal and Record Mirror. "I didn’t know where skiffle came from," he says, over coffee in the lobby of a North London hotel. "For me, it was a real journey of discovery."

If skiffle is remembered at all, it’s usually as a quaint musical novelty – goofy lads belting out makeshift tunes on homemade instruments. Even at the time, the press treated it like a joke.

Skiffle was grassroots. It came from below. It surprised everyone.
Billy Bragg

But Bragg believes this do-it-yourself phenomenon was a revolution, not a fad. "Skiffle was a back-to-basics movement that was about the roots of African-American music," he says. He likens it to punk, a low-budget revolt by youngsters tired of more conventional and (supposedly) sophisticated forms of music. "Skiffle was grassroots. It came from below. It surprised everyone."

Bragg came of age in the punk era, and the similarities between punk and skiffle are striking. By the mid-70s, popular music had become big business. Punk harked back to the raw sound of early rock'n'roll, when anyone who knew three chords could form a band.

Likewise, in the early 50s, popular music was dominated by big swing bands and schmaltzy crooners. Skiffle bands rediscovered early blues records, and reinvented them for a new generation. Like punk, skiffle was a reaction against the supergroups and the moneymen. Bragg says: "Skiffle allowed that generation to distance themselves from the culture of their parents. Every generation needs something like that. For me, it was punk."

Skiffle’s most important instrument wasn’t the washboard or the tea chest bass – it was the guitar. In the dance bands of the 1940s, the guitar was a fringe instrument. Skiffle put it centre stage.

The guitar had driven the authentic music of African-American blues singers, music the skiffle bands revered. They also revered trad jazz. "The trad guys believed the real music was only made in New Orleans," says Bragg. "I came away with the sense that British music owes more to New Orleans than it does to any other American city." Liverpool’s Cavern Club, where The Beatles started out, was originally a jazz club.

Above all, skiffle was British. The music originated in America, but it became something else in Britain, where blues and trad jazz came together. Likewise, skiffle was an American word - black slang for a rent party - but as a term for a type of music, it means nothing in the States.

Billy Bragg
The Cockatoos using a tea chest bass and washboard - and two guitars - in 1957 | Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Skiffle was central to the so-called British Invasion of the 1960s, when UK groups stormed the US charts, following in the footsteps of The Beatles. In 1957, when the movement peaked, there were 50,000 skiffle bands in Britain.

Bragg says: "When The Beatles broke America in 1964, there was an army of road-hardened British bands who’d been playing since they were 12, ready to come in behind them – they’d all started out in skiffle."

They were the first generation to reject the culture of their parents.
Billy Bragg

The birth of skiffle also heralded the birth of the British teenager. Previously, young men and women had gone from childhood straight into adulthood. For these working class kids, born during the Second World War, there was now a brand new in-between time, the teenage years, and skiffle filled that gap.

"It was young people taking control of their culture," says Bragg. "They were the first generation to reject the culture of their parents." This new generation left school at 15, at a time of economic resurgence, and went straight into work. They were the first teenagers, and skiffle was their music.

Conscription was phased out from 1957, which meant young skiffle fans like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones didn’t need to do National Service. "They weren't going into the Army, so they could stick around and have their hair any way they liked," says Bragg.

Rationing finally ended in 1954, ushering in a new era of conspicuous consumption. These moneyed teenagers no longer needed to save coupons to buy clothes. "These kids had grown up in a time of make-do-and-mend," says Bragg. "That’s ended. They’ve got money in their pockets, and now they’ve got their own music."

With its roots in the American Deep South, this music was a world away from the white culture of 50s Britain. Bragg says: "It was the beginning of our multicultural society."

Dancers at an early skiffle gig in 1956, location unknown | Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
The Beatles, who started out as a skiffle outfit, in 1963 | Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
The 'Elvis Presley of Skiffle' Lonnie Donegan and his band in 1957 | Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

So if skiffle was so significant, why has it been forgotten? Because rock'n'roll eclipsed it. Skiffle was a victim of its own success. The Beatles and The Stones both started out as skiffle bands (even Jimmy Page and David Bowie started off playing skiffle) but after Elvis Presley came along, skiffle became uncool.

The Elvis of skiffle was Lonnie Donegan, who bridged the gap between blues and rock'n'roll, and inspired countless British imitators, from Roger Daltrey to George Harrison. However a lot of British rock stars were reluctant to recognise his influence.

"For them, it was juvenilia," says Bragg. One notable exception is Van Morrison, who said Donegan opened the door for him. "You can’t be Elvis if you’re British," said Van Morrison, "but you can be Lonnie Donegan." "His story is the true story of skiffle," says Bragg. "He hasn’t forgotten."

So where does Bragg see skiffle’s influence in popular music today? Like punk, he believes its lasting legacy isn’t a specific musical style, so much as its rebellious can-do attitude. The washboard and the tea chest bass may have vanished, but in new genres like grime, the spirit of skiffle lives on.

He adds: "Skiffle is the nursery of the British Invasion and Swinging London, and that’s why it deserves greater credit, because punk never did anything like that."

Billy Bragg launches the Essex Book Festival at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford on Wednesday 28 February. Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is published by Faber & Faber.

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