Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World
by Billy Bragg
Faber & Faber £20
As Britain emerged from post-war rationing and Elvis Presley emerged from the swamps of Memphis, a new craze in music was emerging from the bedrooms of Britain’s ‘first teenagers’. All you needed was some old bric-a-brac, a tea chest from which to make a bass, Granny’s old wash board and a cheap guitar. Learn three chords and you could start your very own Skiffle band.
A slight over-simplification perhaps, but how difficult could it be given that at its apogee in 1956-7 the skiffle craze saw over 50,000 different bands competing in weekly, often televised skiffle competitions? Nowadays anyone with a mind to make music in their bedroom simply needs a laptop and an internet connection, but in 1950s Britain it required a dogged determination, a thick skin and, in the case of Lonny Donegan, the high-priest of skiffle, a somewhat flexible attitude towards copyright and ownership.
In this remarkably well-researched history (and it is a proper history, taking us from the blues thru dixie, jazz, swing, Teddy Boys and Bill Hailey) Bragg explains how Donegan, and other less successful forerunners, thought nothing of appropriating the songs of old black bluesmen (primarily the ‘crazed drunken negro’ Leadbelly) adding a line here or there and passing off a new hit record as all their own work. It was years before Leadbelly received due credit for Donegan’s breakout hit Rock Island Line. Of course you wouldn’t get away with such larceny nowadays, but in 1956, when no one in Britain, bar a few old jazzers – Ken and Bill Colyer and their role in popularising this new music feature heavily in the early part of this book – had heard real blues before, it was commonplace to beg, borrow or indeed, steal a song and turn it into your own. Bragg describes these acts of daylight robbery with such relish, and (resigned) humour I can only imagine he had as much fun writing and researching this book as you will have reading it. His research is almost too thorough. By the time I had finished I had lost count of the further reading (not to say discs) I had ordered as a result.
Like much else, Skiffle found a home in the newly established coffee houses of liberal Soho, where teenagers unable to drink in licensed premises would gather to make their own entertainment. Who knew the import of London’s first Gaggia coffee machine played such an important role in the development of rock n roll?
It was in Soho that early Skifflers such as Ron Gould plied their trade, and revelled in the fact that their parents disapproved of the music they made. “Look at him. He’s going out to play with a band that uses scrubbing boards and God knows what!” Gould recalls his father saying. Later he showed his father a record featuring “Bill Colyer on washboard”. “Yes but that’s a real bloody musical washboard!” replied Gould’s dad, unable to comprehend the fact that just about anyone with a beard could now claim to be a musician.
“There was a feeling that … we’re doing this for ourselves. It was anti-commercial. We’re going to play our music and sod the rest. Skiffler’s were often heard to say. ‘I’ve got more in common with a black cotton picker than I have with my dad’.”
Partly as a reaction to imported American crooners, and lacking a homegrown Elvis, skiffle competitions soon made it onto primetime televison, attracting the attention of Tin Pan Alley’s impressarios. It marked the beginning of the end. Soon enough even Lonnie Donegan, who often comes across as a throughly dislikable chap, was appearing in panto and early skiffle afficionados including the Beatles, The Bee Gees, Jagger and Richards, ABBA’s Bjorn and even Jimmy Page, whose first appearance on television was aged 13 singing ‘Momma Don’t Allow No Skiffle Playing Round Here’ had gone electric, relegating skiffle to a footnote in history. Until now.
Bragg has majestically resurrected skiffle and skifflers, who were doing-it-themselves long before punk rockers and bedroom beat-boxers, and shown, with a genuine regard and sardonic wit, how three chords played on a bit of old junk gave birth to a revolution. I doubt there is anyone more qualified to have told a tale as tall as this, than Bragg himself. A superb history collected in the nick of time.