Every now and again I get asked to write an article for a website or magazine. Last month, Dutch Website Onder Invloed celebrated it’s 5th birthday with a PDF magazine and I was asked to write about a musical influence, so I chose skiffle music. You can download the PDF of the magazine from the Onder Invloed website:
Here’s a slightly longer version of the article than appeared in the magazine:
The history of popular music has been underpinned with styles that have had long reaching influence. These days, with so many media outlets to gain information from, this mass popularity is unlikely to happen again, but before everything changed, you had years that could be categorized by a style of music….whether that be metal or electro pop in the early 1980’s, punk in the late 1970’s indie in the late 1980’s early 1990’s or less specifically rock in general in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s and pop music as we know it from the late 1950’s/ early 1960’s. These is just a handful of what are probably sub-genres of modern popular music, and along side these contributing to the diversity of music there was the folk revival of the early / mid 1960’s which went hand in hand with the UK blues scene. It could well be argued that all of the above owe an enormous debt to an obscure and, in mass popularity terms, short lived but brightly burned musical genre, that is wholly indigenous to the British Isles called skiffle. Skiffle grew out of UK traditional jazz which in itself sprung up as a result of the first modern musical craze to cross the Atlantic, the jazz craze which spread from the United States across the globe in the 1920s. Jazz has been claimed to be the ‘the only true American artform’, which it may or may not be (blues, anyone?), but it ruled popular music on both sides of the Atlantic for the early part of the 20th century.
Jazz reached the UK through recordings and perfomers while it was a relatively new genre just after the first world war. British musicians began to play jazz in the 1930’s often in dance bands, and by the late 1940’s, a style of jazz known as trad jazz was very popular, and still is (particularly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in various Glasgow bars). Its roots are in dixieland and ragtime jazz…a more bluesy jazz than the Chicago style which was considered more traditional than modern jazz or bebop. The trad jazz revival in Britain was spearheaded by Humphrey Liddleton, who broke with the restrictive Musicians Union regulations of not working with jazz musicians from the United States, and trumpeter Ken Colyers’ jazz band which also featured Chris Barber on trombone and Lonnie Donegan on banjo. In 1954 after the ubiquitous musical differences, Ken Colyer left to from another version of the jazzmen with Acker Bilk (Strangers on the shore) and the band became the Chris Barber band. During the intervals at the trad jazz gigs of the Chris Barber band, Donegan began playing short sets of American folk and blues songs, particularly those by Leadbelly., accompanied by 2 other members of the band on washboard percussion and tea chest bass. These breaks were listed on posters as skiffle breaks, and for a while became more popular than the trad jazz itself. While with the Chris Barber jazz band, Donegan recorded Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line, backed by John Hardy under the name of lonnie Donnegans skiffle Group. The single was released in late 1954 and spent 8 months in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The follow up, ‘Digging My Potatoes’ was his last with the Chris Barber band before leaving, and recording his debut album ‘Lonnie Donegan Showcase’ released in 1956. Chris Barbers huge involvement in the development of music in the UK doesnt end there, however. He was responsible for organizing the first UK tours of blues giants Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters, and like with Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber’s band provided an early platform for blues man Alexis Korner.
The success of the Rock Island Line single and subsequent album brought skiffle to the attention of young people all over an impoverished post war Britain. Skiffle could be played on home made instruments, and doesn’t require dazzling technical musicianship……just enthusiasm and soul which encouraged a lot of young people to give playing music a try. At skiffle’s peak in the late 1950s there were estimated to be 30,000 – 50,000 skiffle bands in the UK, although few managed to create a lasting career out of skiffle. Lonnie Donegan’s name remains inseperable from the genre, and pre-Beatles he was the most succesful chart act in the UK with 24 successive top 30 hits and 2 US top 10 hits; the first UK male to accomplish this. The only other skiffle group to have international success was Chas McDevitt’s skiffle men….McDevitt was orignally from Glasgow but moved south as a child (as was Lonnie Donegan), and was a member of the Crane River Jazz band. McDevitt recorded the Elizabeth Cotton blues, Freight Train with singer Nancy Whiskey, which ended up selling a million copies and earned the Chas McDevitt skiffle group a slot on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The popularity of playing skiffle was probably also its undoing and by the late 1950’s the Skiffle Craze was virtually over with many people drifting away from playing music in general to seek more stable employment, but many others went on to explore the genres that skiffle had drawn its influence from. John Lennons skiffle band the Quarrymen mutated and did not too badly, while Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Jimmy page, Van morrison and Dave Gilmour all started playing in skiffle bands. Folk musicians John Renbourn and martin Carthy also started out playing skiffle, as did Alexis Korner, who along with John Mayall, was one of the leading figures in British blues.
Lonnie Donegan continued to play and record, although was largely ignored in the 1960’s and 70’s. He still wrote a number of songs including ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ recorded by Elvis Pressley and a record of his early songs recorded with Rory Gallagher, and Ringo Starr among others brought him back to the public eye in 1978, where he enjoyed a renaissance until his death in 2002
And the point of this…..I love skiffle. It’s the first music I remember hearing and is buried in my brain forever. It can be easily dismissed as a novelty music, but crank up the record player (or mp3 player) and put on the 2 minutes of perfection that is rock island line, and just try and resist the urge to strap on a washboard and thimbles.