For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.
Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.
Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.
While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.
The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.
First published in 2017
Visit to the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll – the 2i’s coffee bar, Soho
Peter Donegan: interview with Americana singer-songwriter and son of skiffle legend, Lonnie Donegan