Rock and Roll Book Club: Billy Bragg's skiffle story

Billy Bragg's 'Roots, Radicals and Rockers'
Billy Bragg's 'Roots, Radicals and Rockers' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In the introduction to his new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers, Billy Bragg concisely explains the neglected importance of skiffle. He cites a widely-known George Harrison quote: "No Lead Belly, no Beatles." Bragg then points out that's just an abbreviated version of the full quote, which went, "If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles."

Lonnie Donegan was the artist who sparked the mid-1950s skiffle movement in the U.K., and the guy who sang what remains its biggest and best-known hit: "Rock Island Line." Moderately knowledgable rock fans know that Donegan influenced the Beatles, know "Rock Island Line," and might even know that the ur-Beatles band the Quarrymen were also known as the Quarrymen Skiffle Group. Beyond that, what could you say about skiffle? Chances are, not much.

One reason is that to American ears, "skiffle" doesn't sound all that different from "rock and roll." When Donegan came to America in 1956, he played with artists like Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon and was generally welcomed as a rock and roll guy with a catchy hit and a British accent. Although the word "skiffle" came from an African-American term for a rent party, the use of the word to describe a musical genre emphasizing simple chords, folk-derived songs, and jittery tempos was novel to Britain and never really caught on in the U.S.

Bragg's book shines a light on a point in musical history when popular music was in flux, when change was in the air but before rock was canonized as a fundamentally blues-based, guitar-driven genre. Skiffle hit in Britain just as rock and roll was exploding in America; while the results were similar, rock and roll saw itself as kin to country and blues, while skiffle bands evolved from jazz and folk ensembles.

In fact, just a year before cutting "Rock Island Line" in 1954, Donegan's own group were known as Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. Band leader Ken Colyer was a fan of traditional jazz who joined the merchant marine just to get to New Orleans. His U.K. band played hopped-up arrangements of songs like "Midnight Special" and "Casey Jones," so it was a natural progression for Donegan to grab a guitar and take center stage. Thus, in July 1954, skiffle was born.

For a few sweet years, U.K. skiffle essentially coexisted — and was, for many fans, nearly synonymous with — imported hits from the likes of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. There were skiffle clubs, skiffle songbooks, skiffle thinkpieces ("skiffle is, most certainly, a commercial success, but musically it rarely exceeds the mediocre"), and even skiffle fashion.

Bragg estimates that at the genre's peak in 1957, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 skiffle groups. That's a lot, but then, it didn't take much to start a skiffle band. Bragg argues that the genre's historical importance lies in the fact that it was Britain's first rush of truly D.I.Y. youth music — that it presaged punk with its emphasis on passion over precision.

By the late '50s, skiffle was fading out. The skiffle bands that didn't just call it quits tended to split into one of two directions: they either embraced the blues (a la the Beatles) or became part of the transatlantic folk revival.

Bob Dylan, for example, if he'd been born in Britain, probably would now be understood as a skiffle kid turned folkie — and Bragg points out that the Brits who booed Dylan when he brought his Stratocaster to Manchester in 1966 had probably been skiffle fans before they became folk "purists."

Just as the idea of a skiffle genre has been widely forgotten, skiffle music has been kicked to the back burner of history. British Invasion bands tended to downplay their skiffle influences. "If you wanted to be taken seriously," Bragg observes, "better to claim you were initially inspired by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly rather than Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey."

Is it time for a skiffle revival? Van Morrison (a skiffler in his youth) did his part in 1998, taking the stage with Donegan — who would die just a few years later — for a Belfast concert that became the 2000 album The Skiffle Sessions. Now Bragg is beating the drum, with a book that will help skiffle novices to find their way in the genre.

The Current's Roots, Radicals and Rockers Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Roots, Radicals and Rockers giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, July 18, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Roots, Radicals and Rockers. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $29.95

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

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