Thanks to Billy Bragg’s foray into non-fiction, ‘Roots Radicals and Rockers’, markontour is currently listening to Lonnie Donegan. I’m sceptical that ‘Rock Island Line’ would induce the same excitement in twenty-first century kids as it did in 1957 for seemingly everyone from John Lennon to Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and John Peel. But as Bragg turns out to be as eloquent in prose as he is in lyrical verse, I am both hugely entertained by reading he has nevertheless hugely entertained and ready to believe that skiffle did indeed change the musical world.
Skiffle was a peculiarly British phenomenon, albeit entirely derived from its original adherents’ love of north American blues, jazz and folk music. It set the nascent teenage scene alive for just a couple of years at the end of the dull 1950s, before Bragg was born, but the author is attracted to skiffle’s history because it reminds him of the punk scene which fired his own career as a singer-songwriter twenty years later. Both skiffle and punk, he demonstrates, were based on a DIY spirit which enabled working class kids to create their own musical genre, in opposition to all that was respectively mainstream.
Lonnie Donegan, was an accidental founder of the skiffle movement. As guitar player in the Chris Barber trad jazz band he was very much in the background on stage, except during nightly half-hour breaks where he took to the microphone and belted out a few blues covers at break-neck speed. Similarly, in the studio it was only when Barber’s band ran out of their own material that Donegan got to record his cover of LeadBelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’. It wasn’t intended for the resulting album and so it was a surprise when the record company chose to release it as a single months later. Donegan was even more gob-smacked when it became an instant hit and he an over-night star.
From Bragg’s account, Lonnie Donegan looked and sounded completely alien to anything else in the British hit parade. A skinny, scruffy, working class kid, Donegan was anathema to the clean-cut crooners churned out by Tin Pan Alley, and he played his guitar like a man possessed. Moreover, he and his band played instruments that were cheap to get hold of and apparently easy to learn – in contrast to the mastery of expensive clarinets, trumpets and trombones required to participate in the trad jazz movement that had hitherto dominated the post-war alternative music scene.
Lonnie’s success quickly inspired a slew of young working class kids to form their own bands, grabbing a washboard for the rhythm section and putting guitars to the fore. Boosted by airtime on the newly emerging commercial radio and television stations, from Liverpool to London a new Skiffle scene emerged within months and soon there were skiffle competitions up and down the country.
Working class British folklore is Bragg’s forte, but I loved the way that he starts ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers’ by tracing the roots of skiffle back to Afro-American New Orleans jazz, and then throughout the narrative regularly diverts off to explain how variously Woody Guthrie, Rambling Jack Elliot, Pete and Peggy Seeger, and, of course, LeadBelly inspired skiffle’s development.
Unsurprisingly for an artist who made his name playing benefit gigs for the miners, while simultaneoulsy penning ballads about just looking for another girl, in Bragg’s history of skiffle there is a potent mix of pop and politics. Skiffle, he explains, emerged against the backdrop of both ‘Look Back in Anger’ and the first generation of teenagers who saw themselves as fundamentally separate from their parents’. Teenagers in the late 1950s enjoyed a growing disposable income, but also a mounting frustration at the lack of opportunity to use it other than to follow the same, predictable life-path as their parents. As the British government began to test the H-bomb, many teenagers were angry that an older generation that had sent millions of young people to their deaths in two world wars were seemingly willing to countenance using weapons that would kill even more people in the future. Many people in both the skiffle and its feeder trad jazz movement were swept up in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which Bragg calls “the first mass political movement in Britain to engage the nation’s youth”.
Then there was the lure of America. As Lonnie Donegan entered the charts, so too arrived Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. But while the latter still thrives today, skiffle had disappeared without a trace before the 1960s began. And yet, as Bragg documents, it was the experience gained and bonds forged in skiffle that enabled John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and their ilk to go on to create the bands who later changed the face of music on both sides of the Atlantic, The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones among them. Skiffle might have lost the battle, but its spirit won the war..