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How skiffle shaped British rock’n’roll

Billy Bragg.

Billy Bragg offers a lively account in Roots, Radicals and Rockers.

Liverpool in the late 50s had 200 skiffle groups, including one – the Quarrymen – led by a teenager named John Lennon. Extrapolated nationwide, that adds up to an astonishing number. So this period was not the “dead ground of British pop culture” that singer-songwriter Billy Bragg calls it in this detailed, digressive account of skiffle’s antecedents and impact.

The zenith of skiffle was the 1956 hit Rock Island Line by East End-raised Lonnie Donegan. It was a Leadbelly song, recorded 18 months earlier as a filler for a jazz album and just a week after Elvis Presley brought white country and black blues together in his version of That’s All Right, thus giving impetus, if not birth, to rock’n’roll.

Skiffle, a uniquely British take on American folk-blues, grew out of the “breakdown” period in the jazz set of New Orleans purist Ken Colyer’s band. Guitarist-singer Donegan would step forward as others took time out.

The dogmatic opinions of Colyer – who had learnt New Orleans jazz at the source and had the additional cachet of having spent time in prison there for playing with black artists – were not to be disputed. But as jazz aficionados argued matters of authenticity (trads vs modernists), working-class teenagers took to the exciting new “skiffle”, not least because any teenager with an acoustic guitar, mum’s washboard for percussion or a tea-chest bass could play it.

Bragg’s story explores a social history of post-war Britain accounting for the rise of Soho, coffee bars, Teddy Boys, the parallel thrill of rock’n’roll, duffel coats, the impact of television and more.

At times, it reads like distilled Wikipedia entries about material covered better elsewhere. But Bragg punctuates the narrative with character studies, lively anecdotes and alarmist comments about teenagers’ tastes from music magazines and newspapers of the day. Jazz and folk musicians tried to ring-fence their art from the musical pollution around them, but that young, disrespectful and heretical world inevitably encroached.

As a boy, the Who’s Pete Townshend saw Colyer’s band with a guitarist, not a horn player, centre-stage. It was his future and the end of skiffle. The kids occupied the ground created by nascent rock’n’roll and skiffle and plugged it in.

Bragg opens with Rock Island Line, loops back into skiffle’s prehistory and ends with Paul McCartney meeting Lennon in mid-57. Then there’s a roll call of who started in skiffle: Van Morrison, members of Led Zeppelin, the Hollies and Cream. Young David Bowie sang Donegan songs at Scout camp …

Skiffle itself may not have changed the world, but the teenagers who embraced it certainly would.


This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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