Billy Bragg writes an uptempo history of skiffle's golden age

Roots, Radicals and Rockers is full of great characters and vignettes of bracingly different times.

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Skiffle is an American expression which, between the wars, meant “rent party”. It means little to most Americans today. To Britons, particularly those who were young in the 1950s, it came to denote that fidgety form of music, which served as a bridge between the weighty folk-blues of singers such as Leadbelly and the lurid new rock’n’roll as practised by Elvis Presley. Skiffle was popular because it required little technique and could be played on cheap acoustic guitars and even items of old household equipment.

The golden generation of British rockers all started out in skiffle groups. It was their gateway to what came after rock’n’roll. Paul first clapped eyes on John when he was leading his skiffle group the Quarrymen at a church fête in the summer of 1957.

It helped that skiffle’s leading light, Lonnie Donegan, was British but had found a convincing way of playing American. As Van Morrison, who was in his own skiffle group, the Sputniks, while at school in Belfast, recalls, “People trying to copy Elvis had no chance… but Donegan made it possible to go through that door.” This book is a history of the music that made it acceptable for English musicians to sing in an American accent. Interesting that it should be written by Billy Bragg, one of the few British musicians who stubbornly sings in his own tongue.

The skiffle boom, which occupied the latter half of the 1950s, came about, as is explained in his readable account of its brief golden age, by accident. Donegan, whose name was Tony but who had adopted Lonnie in tribute to the American guitarist Lonnie Johnson, was supposed to supply light relief in the middle of his employer’s traditional jazz set. Inevitably his material became more popular than the allegedly serious stuff, particularly with the kids who wanted something you could dance to. When the band leader tried to throw him out, Lonnie was off to the races with the cries of his jazz scene detractors overwhelmed by the sound of ringing cash registers. Not overly lovable to begin with, Donegan further offended the purists by eventually swapping traditional American work songs for TV-friendly fare such as “My Old Man’s a Dustman”.

Throughout this period, the letters pages of the Melody Maker reverberated with passionate disputes about authenticity. As Bragg’s account makes clear, it’s easy to shoot holes in such arguments. Donegan’s big hit “Rock Island Line” claimed the railway was close to New Orleans. Not only was it actually hundreds of miles to the north, the song was composed by the winners of a talent competition run by the railroad’s owners and organised by some turn-of-the-century Simon Cowell.

’Twas ever thus. Tug on any thread in the most complicated musical tapestry and you always find somebody trying to make rent. Music is music. There isn’t one sort that’s more real than any other. But skiffle sounded authentic and the bands dressed like artisans, so there were the inevitable arguments about who had sold out and who hadn’t.

Bragg’s broad canvas, which encompasses everything from the birth of jazz in New Orleans to the mass trespass movement in the Peak District in the 1930s, is peopled with great characters and crammed with vignettes of bracingly different times: Londoner Ken Colyer, who signed on as second cook on a freighter just to get to New Orleans before the last jazz pioneers died; teenager Shirley Collins, who would sell the Daily Worker on Saturdays and then don her home-made finery and go onto Hastings pier at night looking for a man fit to throw her over his shoulder; the PR man John Kennedy, who got Tommy Steele in the papers by staging a party full of fake debs and pretending that Steele was the toffs’ chosen rock’n’roll star; visiting American Peggy Seeger, who rode a scooter from London to Scotland with no helmet on and a banjo at her back while barely out of her teens; and, inevitably, any number of glowering moralists, from Victorian folklorist Hubert Parry to the communist Ewan MacColl, who fancied that they could tell people what was real music and what wasn’t.

Most history from the rock’n’roll age, like most Second World War history, is now written by people who weren’t there at the time. If there’s a drawback with Bragg’s book it’s that it ought to have come out 20 years ago, when the people who played skiffle, either famously or in an amateur capacity, were still around in numbers. Because it’s 2017, such contemporary phenomena as the Aldermaston marches, the growth of ITV, and the electric effect of Bill Haley’s decorous “Rock Around the Clock” played through big speakers at the cinema, all have to be explained in full to a contemporary readership for whom pleasure denied can mean an app that won’t launch.

The subject of skiffle can’t have been the easiest sell to a publisher in 2017. This may account for the slight over-statement in the title Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and the regular recourse to comparisons with punk rock. Punk, being a mere 40 years old, is presumed to be comparatively pin sharp in the memory. This book made me wonder whether, for all the fuss it makes about itself, punk rock was actually as consequential as skiffle was. 

David Hepworth’s most recent book is “Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars” (Bantam Press)

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World
Billy Bragg
Faber & Faber, 431pp, £20​

This article appears in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions