It is now fifty years since Skiffle hit the headlines, fifty years since youth was to assault the delicate senses of their apoplectic elders and cause them to shake in disbelief their collective sensible heads.
Skiffle was a short lived phenomenon, however it was probably the first time British youth had brought about a sea change in popular music - Skiffle, although derivative, was a wholly UK inspired revival. The music burst into public consciousness in January 1956 when Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ crashed into the charts. Significantly Lonnie was backed by Chris Barber on bass and by Beryl Bryden on washboard. Within a week tea chests, washboards and kazoos were pretty well unobtainable as every duffel-coated youth was enthusiastically banging, humming or twanging Skiffle. If nothing else, Skiffle was to prove egalitarian.
Skiffle was new, Doris Day, Denis Lotis and sugar syrup it certainly was not. It was raw, it spoke of modern issues, the moon was definitely never to spoon in June and Tom Dooley invariably got his just deserts. But more importantly Skiffle challenged the hitherto US led domination of British popular music.
What was the evolution of Skiffle and what were its origins?
To trace the origins of Skiffle we need to return to a United States of the1920’s. Skiffle evolved out of the poor US underclass, its main influences were to include blues, spirituals, barrelhouse, and the work song tradition. Later Skiffle would be refined and sanitised, but it remained essentially the earthy music of the working classes. The origins of the name are disputed, but Skiffle was usually the name given to the music at a party in which the participants sang and played conventional and improvised instruments. Skiffle favoured home made guitars, jug spitting, washboards, harmonicas and kazoos, and during Prohibition was often lubricated with liberal doses of home made hooch. The sound created was not entirely Jazz or Blues but was a democratic hybrid which ultimately embraced a number of styles, including influences of Cajun, Folk and early Country and Western. The appellation Skiffle was interchangeable with the Spasm bands of the time. There are a number of extant contemporary recordings of early Skiffle, and many unpleasant racial stereotype ‘Uncle Tom’ publicity posters and photographs.
Who were the main players and influences? Perhaps the main protagonist was Hudie Leadbetter or ‘Leadbelly’. In his youth a petty criminal, he was eventually gaoled for murder. After his release he recommenced his hard-edged singing career. His best-known contribution to the genre was ‘Goodnight Irene’ which in true country blues style had two sets of lyrics, the polite lyric and the real lyric. The white folk singer Woody Guthrie had input, as did Blind Blake and Tampa Red’s Hokum Band. Other early pioneers included Jimmy Bryant and his Montana Skiffle and Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume.
In the UK, after the War, Traditional Jazz became the music of disaffected youth and the music of the left. The usual combination of musicians paralleled the New Orleans template and consisted of a rhythm section of timps, double bass, guitar or banjo, and driving the band - cornet/trumpet, trombone and clarinet. Occasionally a piano was added to beef up the overall cohesion. Not until Bruce Turner joined the Humphrey Lyttleton band was a saxophone considered, and even then to the purists it was frowned upon.
During the Festival of Britain celebrations of July 1951 in the presence of Princess Elizabeth at the new Royal Festival Hall, a colossal Jazz concert was organised and the genre finally received its official seal of approval. Subsequently a number of recordings found release, and several became big sellers, however as there was no ‘chart’ there was no concrete indication of their popularity. Many Trad Jazz bands evolved within their line up embryonic Skiffle groups, and the ever visionary Chris Barber had enlisted the Colyer brothers and the soon to be genres leader, Tony Donegan. (Later to be re-christened ‘Lonnie’ Donegan.)
The damascene moment in the acceptance of Skiffle was to occur in September 1951 with the appearance in London of Big Bill Broonzy (see ‘the Fifties - a very British decade’) although a low key concert it was to define an era, Skiffle had truly arrived. Josh White was to follow and once the dam was breached the trickle became a flood.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Otis Span, Muddy Waters all came, sang and conquered - and the UK input was impressive too, Denny Wright, Bill Bramwell, Diz Disley, Ken Sykora all listened and learned. After 1951 many UK Trad Bands included a Skiffle set as part of their repertoire. Skiffle possessed a slow fuse… but it has to be appreciated there was a gigantic bomb attached to it. Chris Barber promoted Lonnie Donegan and in 1955 ‘Rock Island Line’ was released. The rest as they say, is history. It is worth noting that in addition to being a fine singer Lonnie was a mean banjo and guitar player.
Skiffle from being a niche interest exploded and everyone wanted a piece of the action, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey's ‘Freight Train’ was a slow starter but was to become the Oriole record company’s first million seller, and subsequently became the first British group to conquer the American charts, leading to appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and at the world famous Palisades Park.
Lonnie went on to produce a string of hit records; meanwhile Bob Cort had recruited Ken Sykora. The influential folk hero Alan Lomax secured the services of Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger and formed the up-market Ramblers; Wally Whyton joined the Vipers, there was Les Bennetts and Les Hobeaux, Dickie Bishop had his Sidekicks, Ray Bush and his Avon City Skifflers, and in 1956 it seemed the country had gone Skiffle crazy. Skiffle even had the accolade of a comedy alter ego; Morris and Mitch, to be joined by Marty Feldman who parodied the ‘Six Five Special’ theme. Even the urbane Clinton Ford recorded Skiffle.
Additionally, Skiffle empowered a formidable set of ballsy women with, in the vanguard Beryl Brydon and her washboard, Fiona Duncan, Shirley Bland, the peerless Nancy Whiskey, Shirley Douglas and Ottilie Patterson.
The era was supplemented with an obligatory attendant scandal. When Nancy Whiskey announced she was to marry, she unfortunately forgot to check that her paramour was not already married - he was … and the newspapers had a field day.
Every coffee bar had its resident group. In London the Irani brothers established the Two ‘I’s’ as the premier Skiffle venue and Chas McDevitt opened the ‘Freight Train’ coffee bar. There was the Gyre and Gimble, and Cye Laurie even held a Skiffle night in his famous club. Promoters cashed in on the craze and many ‘Skiffle’ contests were held.
Unfortunately Skiffle was limited and repetitive. By 1960 the Skiffle era had run its course and only Lonnie Donegan was to maintain the genus. However, for a short time in the mid fifties Skiffle’s light shone incandescent, and the music had changed irrevocably the way we entertained ourselves. It fixed the course of British music and laid the matrix for the sixties, in fact it has to be affirmed that without the influence of Skiffle, the Beatles and their imitators might never have existed.
Again we observe the fifties as a defining decade, and we fail to pay attention.
For a rattling good read, Chas McDevitt’s seminal book ‘Skiffle’ (Robson Books) is essential and definitive.
© Alex Balmforth 2007
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