Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is the first book to explore this phenomenon in depth – a meticulously researched and joyous account that explains how skiffle…
June 1, 2017 | by Hannah Marshall
This month Faber Social publishes Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers, the first book to explore the 1950s Skiffle phenomenon in depth. In this author Q&A, Billy Bragg tells us a little more about the Skiffle craze and reminds us of the genre’s key role in the story of British rock n roll.
What is Skiffle?
Skiffle is a do-it-yourself music, played on acoustic guitar, tea-chest bass and washboard by British teenagers in the late 1950s. It provided the seed bed for the British invasion of the US charts in 1964-65 and is a crucial missing piece in the story of 60s pop.
How did Skiffle popularise guitar-led music?
Lonnie Donegan was the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar. Crooners had held sway since the 1930s. By playing guitar, Donegan gave teenagers in Britain a music they could call their own, differentiated from their parents’ music by its rawness and its roots. Teenage boys took the hint and sales of guitars leapt from 5,000 in 1950 to 250,000 in 1957.
How does Skiffle differ from Folk music?
Folk music in Britain was rural and, more often than not, unaccompanied — songs about farming and lords and ladies. Conversely, American folk music, embodied by the repertoire of Lead Belly, seemed much more contemporary — songs about railroads and outlaws. It was from the latter that skiffle took inspiration.
What artists got their start as teenagers in Skiffle groups?
Between January 1964 and December 1965, there was a British group at No. 1 in the US charts for 52 weeks out of 104. Every single group contained members who had learned to play their instrument during the skiffle craze. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, T Rex, even Bjorn from Abba – all started out in skiffle bands.
What lead to the Skiffle craze?
This was the first generation of teenagers in the UK as we know them today. Their childhoods had been blighted by the war and although that ended in 1945, rationing of food continued until 1954. A consumer boom in the late 50s gave them money to spend and skiffle provided them with the first identifiable culture that they could call their own.
Were there styles of music or artists who were the inspiration for Skiffle?
Although skiffle groups played mostly blues and folk, the roots of the phenomenon were in trad jazz, a back-to-basics movement that looked to New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration. They inhabited the late-night dives of Soho and it was from there that skiffle emerged. In terms of the skiffle repertoire, Lead Belly was the main source of material, although Woody Guthrie was also popular.
If you had to recommend a few of the most important (not popular) Skiffle songs, what would they be and why?
Obviously Donegan’s “Rock Island Line,” which kicked off the craze and got to number 8 in the US charts in May 1956. “Freight Train” by the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group and Nancy Whiskey. “Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O” by the Vipers, who were the most authentic of the skiffle groups to emerge from Soho in the late 50s.
You say that Skiffle was a way for amateurs to create music and become musicians outside of the music industry at the time — why was that important?
It was important because it encouraged teenagers to make their own music, which in turn gave them the confidence to write original songs. This led to the forming of songwriting partnerships such as Lennon and McCartney.
What role did the teenagers play in the Skiffle movement?
Being a teenager in Britain during the 50s was a working class affair. Middle class kids tended to go straight from being children to becoming young adults, dressing like their parents and listening to the same music. Leaving education at 15, working class kids were able to find well-paid work and soon went looking for their own social space. Skiffle took hold in the coffee bars of Soho where, unlike in the pubs or clubs of the period, young working class women were able to gather without having to ask a man to accompany them. It was in these places that young men with guitars were eager to get up and perform.
Did anything surprise you as you wrote the book?
I was surprised to learn that a number of key figures from the American folk revival were in London during the period, trying to escape McCarthyism: Alan Lomax, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Peggy Seeger, Guy Carawan, all played a part in the skiffle craze.
Do you think there will ever be a Skiffle revival?
The key thing about skiffle was that it was a craze, like the hula-hoop. Most of the participants were under the age of 18 and they had never seen anyone their age create music before. This had the effect of making them feel that they, too, could be part of the scene. That same do-it-yourself ethic took off again in Britain during the punk rock years, which suggests that something like it could, in theory, happen again. Not the same sound, but the same sense of being empowered by your peers.
Roots, Radicals and Rockers by Billy Bragg is out now.
Billy Bragg is Faber Social’s guest editor for June.