What do The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Rolling Stones have in common? Members of all of these legendary rock bands were once part of skiffle groups. What does the majority of the world’s population have in common? It hasn’t ever heard of skiffle. BilIy Bragg is here to change that with his new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.
Skiffle amnesia is understandable. History is vast and varied, and not everything can be remembered. Yet, after delving into Bragg’s richly detailed and engaging account of this musical movement, I’m astounded that the genre is not more well known. Skiffle began as American jazz, blues and folk music reinterpreted, manipulated and revolutionized by 1950’s British musicians. It served as the precursor to the British folk revival and the British Invasion that brought rock ’n’ roll to entirely new heights.
Bragg seems to have a passion for resurrecting and preserving history. He’s an accomplished punk and folk musician, genres with rich histories themselves. Most recently, he released a collaborative album with Joe Henry titled Shine a Light, which revisits the American railroad and the tradition of music that it inspired. The album features “Rock Island Line” and “Midnight Special” — prison work songs from the U.S. South popularized by Lead Belly, one of America’s earliest accomplished folk and blues artists, whose music inspired a generation on skiffle enthusiasts in England.
Roots, Radicals and Rockers clearly showcases Bragg’s affinity for history. It is exhaustively researched and intricately detailed. I feel as though I’ve walked away from this book not only more educated in the world of skiffle but enriched with an appreciation for the entire arc of rock ’n’ roll and popular music as a whole.
In the post-World War II era, British teenagers were entering the workforce, making decent money, and were looking for something to occupy their time and set them apart from their parent’s generation. Particular nationalist policies, intended to protect British musicians, prevented the exciting American music being developed across the Atlantic from making its way over to British stages and airwaves. Only a select group of musicians, Ken Colyer most prominent among them, were keyed into the American traditional jazz world and helped spread its influence back home. From this jazz scene sprouted the guitar-centric sound — backed by the washboards and tea-chest basses — that became synonymous with skiffle.
Lonnie Donegan was the first star of the skiffle scene and the first prominent British talent to play the guitar. Immediately after his debut television performance of “Rock Island Line,” sales of guitars surged throughout the U.K. These teenagers saw in Donegan and skiffle a possibility for homegrown talent, three easily-learned chords and a music entirely by and for their generation. George Harrison himself said, “If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Throughout Roots, Radicals and Rockers, Bragg draws comparisons between skiffle and the dawn of the punk rock movement in the United Kingdom in 1970s. Both popularized an easily simplified replicable sound, were driven by teenage arbor and faced an incredible backlash from purists in the music scene and adult society at large. It’s striking how skiffle, a music that by today’s standards seems wholly wholesome, garnered such fiery resistance. One wonders what will be the next music to divide generations? Is there anything out there these days as dangerous, or have we seen it all?
Skiffle holds up really well, too! Pop on any Lonnie Donegan compilation, and you’ll be treated to a capsule of jaunty, fun tunes. The songs feel familiar to anyone with even a semblance of a knowledge of early rock ‘n’ roll. They feel like cousins to Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly. In an era when songs were traded back and forth among artists and hemispheres, skiffle found its own sound, and it’s worth revisiting.
Roots, Radicals, and Rockers is very obviously a labor of love from Bragg. There is tireless attention to detail in the storytelling. Bragg does the due diligence of laying the social and political groundwork of the era to contextualize the music. It’s a wonderful, enjoyable, and, at this point I’d say, critical addition to any music enthusiast’s library.
Photo (top): The Gorton Skiffle Group, circa 1957. Image from the cover of Roots, Radicals, Rockers by Billy Bragg.