Roots, Radicals and Rockers

Issue section: 
(427)

Set between the period after the Second World War and the early 1960s in Britain, Billy Bragg’s history of skiffle music is clearly a labour of love, a work of dedicated musicological research and social history. The fact that it contains 430 pages gives an idea of the scope and depth of the work. It is replete with detail, illustrations and recollections of people involved at the time, whether directly or as close surviving relatives.

Skiffle was a music that emerged out of the British traditional jazz scene in the early 1950s. Between sets, the brass players took a rest and the guitarist, accompanied by a bassist and a percussionist, often using a washboard, would do a short set of American blues and folk songs.

These sessions became extremely popular. Here was the potential for “do it yourself” music, and countless numbers of young people did exactly that. You didn’t have to go to school to make this music, and the instruments were within reach of young working class people.

Billy Bragg lists an impressive number of musicians who later led the “British invasion” of the US, who started out in skiffle — the most famous examples being the Beatles and Jimmy Page.

The best known skiffle star was Lonnie Donegan, who was originally a member of the Ken Colyer Jazz Band.

In 1954 he recorded a song called “Rock Island Line”. The song was strongly associated with the esteemed African-American singer Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), from whom it had been collected in the mid-1930s by the academic folklorist John Lomax. Lead Belly recorded the song in 1937.

Billy Bragg impressively traces the history of the song to the opening of the Chicago and Rock Island Line 100 years before Donegan’s recording.

While skiffle was a “uniquely British” take on American folk and blues, it was also entirely derivative of and dependent upon this American music for its repertoire. The name itself came from an African-American term for parties that were held to raise rent money.

Sadly, sometimes through ignorance and other times driven by the profit motive, there were various levels of non-acknowledgement of the original folk and blues performers.

A shocking example is the fact that Donegan’s American manager apparently complained to Ledbetter’s recording company that a Mr Lead Belly had been recording Mr Donegan’s songs without the said Mr Donegan’s permission.

American rock and roll took over from skiffle and Bragg tells us that hoses were turned upon young people jiving in the aisles of local cinemas. Could anybody be surprised that they then rioted?

In this book Bragg performs a great service. It is not for the faint-hearted. If you want a quick fix on the history of skiffle, try Wikipedia. If you want the phenomenon and period in vivid detail, read this book.