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Saturday 11th
posted by Morning Star in Arts

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg (Faber & Faber, £20)

YOUNGER readers may never have heard of skiffle, the short-lived musical craze of the late 1950s whose songs were mainly derived from US blues and folk, usually but not exclusively of African-American origin.

But the performers were British, thousands of teenagers who had never touched a musical instrument before.

The biggest star was Lonnie Donegan, whose version of Rock Island Line by the great Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) was the song that kick-started a craze which was largely all over in a few years.

It’s widely ignored in the history of pop culture but Billy Bragg wants to flag up the importance of skiffle and puts a strong case for it in this entertaining and informative book.

Skiffle’s instruments were basic to say the least — washboards, used to launder clothes in those ancient times, usually stood in for drums, and guitars were the cheapest mass-produced ones.

The music was in many ways basic but this meant that skiffle was accessible to all — music-making was no longer just for those who could afford good instruments and lessons.

Some young skifflers such as Mick Jagger, Alan Price, Rod Stewart, Roger Daltrey, Dave Davies and all of the Beatles went on to become “proper” musicians.

A few years later, the Beatles led the “British invasion” which took the music back across the Atlantic and showed the US its own rich musical heritage which it was largely unaware of.

Skiffle is the focus of Bragg’s book but the scope is wide-ranging.

Especially interesting is the account of jazz trumpeter Ken Colyer’s “pilgrimage” — thanks to the Merchant Navy — to New Orleans to learn from the original jazzers before they passed on.

When fascists attacked Caribbean immigrants in Notting Hill, skifflers and jazzers set up the Harmony Club in the area to bring young people from all communities together.

A key figure in the campaign was Trinidadian-born communist Claudia Jones.

Many newspapers sponsored skiffle competitions and there is a mention of one organised by the Daily Worker. Does any Star reader remember this?

Perhaps you took part in it...

Peter Harvey