Music & Movements: The Skiffle revolution

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Following the Second World War, austerity and rationing loomed large in British society. The rebuilding of post-war Britain would change the country forever. The Windrush generation saw new cultural influences appear, rationing ended and the longest sustained boom in the history of capitalism began. Musically, the US was the most important place in the world and young people looked there for their inspiration, leading to four musical developments that would profoundly influence British youth in the 1950s: traditional jazz, rock’n’roll, skiffle and modern jazz.
Each genre affected their adherents in a variety of ways, but it is skiffle in particular we will concentrate on here. The origins of the term ‘skiffle’ are hotly debated, but the music itself comes from a combination of ‘spasm’ (a type of Dixieland jazz), blues and American folk music, especially the jug band scene of the US South in the early 20th century. Based on simple threechord structures, skiffle was easier to play than jazz and therefore more accessible to musical beginners. You could, in theory, learn to play an instrument within weeks and form a band within months. While the working class has always written and performed music, the change in social and economic circumstances in the 1950s saw an unprecedented growth in working-class performance, albeit with the most rudimentary of instruments.
Specialist instrument shops were few and far between, but guitarists could buy cheap imports from Europe while many would-be musicians began to make their own. At the height of the skiffle boom in 1957 an estimated 40,000- 50,000 skiffle bands appeared at youth clubs and coffee bars throughout the UK. Appearing alongside this music revolution were clothes shops that sold fashion for young people and not simply smaller versions of what their parents wore. Thus, the ‘teenager’ was born. The beginnings of mass consumer culture were evident after the First World War with the growth of consumer durables and, importantly for music, mass-produced radios. But with the boom after the Second World War a new market opened up, solely for teenagers.
Full employment, highly unionised workplaces and economic security gave a level of financial certainty and independence only dreamt of by their parents. In the aftermath of war, the recordings of American artists were virtually impossible to obtain. Without the luxury of digital music and the internet, vinyl records took on an almost theistic quality. People who liked blues, jazz and folk had to hunt down these records in the few existing specialist shops. Some even resorted to stealing them from the library of the US consulate. Live performances were even more rare, especially from the US artists who made these records.
The Musicians’ Union had a reciprocal agreement with its US counterpart that there would only be a like-forlike touring policy. So, American artists would only appear in Britain if a similar tour was arranged of British artists in the US. In the 1950s, however, the traffic was only one-way. This dramatically changed in the 1960s with the emergence of groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, most of whom served apprenticeships in skiffle bands. But for the music-hungry teenagers of the 1950s a homegrown solution was needed to satisfy their appetite for live music. Although dance halls and live music existed, and jazz and blues festivals were up and running by 1958, these were all largely acoustic affairs. Local gigs were usually at youth clubs, the back rooms of pubs and, for the really successful groups, dank basements in Soho.
If these groups had amplifiers at all, it would be two guitars and vocals plugged into one tiny 18-watt amp. The rhythm section suffered the most. Bassists would ‘play’ an upside-down wooden tea chest, complete with broomstick and string suitably attached. Drums, such as they were, consisted of a washboard, a few thimbles and a lot of enthusiasm. Mass consumption of recorded and amplified music — outdoors in the 1950s — was most often enjoyed at fairgrounds. Even ten years later, the PA used by The Rolling Stones at their Hyde Park gig in 1969 (a Watkins 1,500-watt) is comical by modern-day standards.
The sound system used at Glastonbury in 2019 was 140,000 watts. Skiffle exploded at the same time as the first rock’n’roll records were being heard in the UK. Rock’n’roll would soon prevail, leaving skiffle as a forgotten footnote in musical history. But skiffle was the first mass musical movement which had young people as both spectators and participants. It had a political edge which is also now overlooked. Skiffle should be reclaimed and celebrated as politically progressive, an original and innovative musical genre and the bedrock of popular music in Britain for the last six decades.