Magazine article The Spectator

'Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World', by Billy Bragg - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World', by Billy Bragg - Review

Article excerpt

'It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it,' sang the Desperate Bicycles on their self-funded debut single in 1977, summing up the punk belief that you didn't have to be the world's best musician before getting up on stage or making a record. Twenty years earlier, a previous generation learned a similar message from the skiffle explosion, which put guitars in the hands of many future members of the key British rock groups of the Sixties. It therefore seems appropriate that a musician first inspired by seeing The Clash has eventually written a book about skiffle.

Billy Bragg has a long-standing interest in the genre, and his passion for those early days of frantic strumming and washboard-driven rhythms is clear throughout his eloquent and thoroughly researched book. A hybrid musical form, skiffle had its roots in the jazz which developed in the wide-open Storyville district of New Orleans, but it also contained elements drawn from the blues, the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, prewar hillbilly tunes, prison work songs and the folk music of the British Isles and of Ireland.

Lonnie Donegan, the undisputed king of the movement, found his big opportunity while playing as a sideman with Chris Barber in Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, stepping into the spotlight as part of a stripped-down 'breakdown group' at their shows, performing what was billed as a 'skiffle' session during intervals.

As for the word itself, Bragg quotes Paul Oliver's landmark 1969 work, The Story of the Blues, to the effect that 'skiffle' was a 1920s term for those impromptu gatherings more commonly known as rent parties. How-ever, other jazz scholars have credited Emile 'Stalebread' Lacoume's pioneering 1890s New Orleans street combo the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band as a skiffle group, and a 1936 interview with Lacoume highlighted their defiantly makeshift instrumentation, foreshadowing that of some 1950s skiffle bands, 'turning a half beer keg into a bass fiddle, a cigar box into a violin, a soap box into a guitar'. Here was the DIY spirit in its purest form. Reaching further back, a 1873 dictionary of Somerset slang published in London defined 'skiffle' as 'to make a mess of any business', and 'skiffling' as 'the act of whittling a stick'.

Bragg draws an impressive number of strands together, telling the rich tale of a country still experiencing the final years of postwar rationing, in which teenagers began to assert themselves and develop their own interests -- a world of trad jazz, dance halls, CND marches, coffee bars and the first stirrings of the American rock'n'roll movement which eventually swept all before it. …

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