“Skiffle exists in the dead ground of British pop culture, and between the end of the war and the rise of the Beatles,” writes musician Billy Bragg in this fantastic history of a little known though immensely influential musical form, played with basic instruments such as guitar, bass (stand-up or homemade from a broomstick and tea box), drum kit and washboard.
Skiffle is the British equivalent of American rockabilly — that combination of country and rhythm and blues that gave rise in the United States to Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954 with “Rock Around the Clock” as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, most famously, Elvis Presley. Bragg, a British singer-songwriter who came on the post-punk folk music scene in the 1980s, is also a social activist and, I learned upon reading this book, an astute music historian.
Skiffle, which grew in the U.K. in the mid-1950s, had its origins in American jazz along with country and R&B. It originated, in part, with a British jazz trumpeter named Ken Colyer, who became a merchant marine in 1952 in order to work his way to New Orleans to hear and play with some of the great jazz musicians.
Bragg takes readers on Colyer’s journey to New Orleans and back to England, where he brought the music of New Orleans jazz and that of legendary blues singer and guitarist Lead Belly. Upon his return, Colyer formed a touring band called Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, and brought on guitarist Lonnie Donegan.
Donegan put skiffle on the map with his 1955 version of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line,” which landed at No. 8 on the U.K charts. Bragg evocatively captures the sound: “Suddenly, the song begins to pick up momentum like a runaway train. The washboard player scrapes up a storm while the double bass dances around the rhythm.” (If there’s one detraction from this history, it is that Bragg doesn’t often enough bring the sound of the music to life.)
Beyond the music, Bragg describes the culture of skiffle, which could be heard in the Italian cafes of the Soho neighborhood of London, thanks in part to the invention of the Gaggia Italian espresso machine and an Italian salesman named Pino Risorvato who first imported it; espresso fueled many late-night skiffle jam sessions.
Bragg talks about the Teddy Boys, who “had hair piled in a quiff, long sideburns … drainpipe trousers and crepe-soled shoes.” They were, in style and rebellion, the precursor to the suspender- and combat-boot-wearing punks of the 1970s.
As far as that “dead ground” of British music, Bragg makes good in his argument that skiffle changed the world, beginning in July 1957: “at the height of the skiffle boom,” when “the Quarry Men Skiffle Group, fronted by a sixteen-year-old Teddy Boy named John Lennon,” performed at a summer church festival just outside of Liverpool. Directly after the gig, Lennon was introduced to a 15-year-old guitar player named Paul McCartney.
Bragg’s enthusiasm for his subject shines in this definitive, if at times dense, history of skiffle music — and it’s a fascinating read.
Mark Rotella is the author of “Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria” and “Amore: The Story of Italian American Song.”
Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World
By: Billy Bragg.
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 431 pages, $29.95.