Review: ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

91pAfTDsSqLIn mid-1950s England, a type of music flared up, shone bright for a couple of years, then faded into obscurity as the juggernaut that was rock and roll swept away everything that had passed for popular music. But in his new book “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World,” singer/songwriter Billy Bragg makes the case that the guitar-based, American folk and blues-influenced Skifflers paved the way for a generation of musicians to dominate the 1960s. Members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Led Zeppelin, to name just a few, got their start in the DIY Skiffle explosion.

Bragg writes that the Skiffle boom lasted only a couple of years, from 1954 to 1956-7, but in 400 compelling pages, he gives us not only insight into this brief period of time, but also a detailed overview of the history of American blues, folk and jazz.

Bragg is in a unique position to explore these topics, having come to prominence on the back of the punk explosion (after Skiffle, the second great British DIY musical movement), and having recorded Woody Guthrie songs. His musical heroes were influenced by Skiffle, and the stripped-down aesthetic of his early recordings fits the genre’s philosophy.

Billy Bragg talks about “Roots, Radicals and Rockers” at the Strand Bookstore in New York, July 22, 2017. Photo by Andy Coughlan

So, what is Skiffle? Dictionaries define it simply as a musical genre with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. If a parallel could be drawn, one could say it is rockabilly meets folk with a slight rock twist. Drawing its roots from the blues house parties of Chicago, the music grew from the post-war Trad Jazz revival in England. Two figures tower over the narrative — the surly purist Ken Colyer, who joined the merchant navy so he could ship out to America to find his jazz heroes, and Lonnie Donegan, who became the first person to hit the British charts with the guitar as the lead instrument.

Donegan is the unchallenged “King of Skiffle,” dominating the charts in the mid-1950s with a series of covers of songs by Lead Belly and Guthrie. The Skiffle versions were more uptempo and Donegan, in a nasally whine, ramped the up speed as the song progressed. His version of “Rock Island Line” literally ends like a runaway train with a breathless Donegan spitting out the words. It is the punk of its day — an exciting change from the crooners and orchestras that dominated the radio airwaves. No wonder it attracted a newly defined group — teenagers — only just throwing off the yoke of post-war rationing, which did not end until 1954. A generation of young boys went out and bought guitars and claimed a music for themselves.

Bragg quotes a source who said guitar imports in 1956 were estimated to be a quarter of a million, as opposed to six thousand in 1950. At its height, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 Skiffle groups in England. They congregated in coffee shops and eschewed the restrictions of the mainstream airwaves to create their own scene. As usual, when the mainstream finally caught on, Skiffle was effectively over. But these teenagers took their guitars, went electric, added drums instead of washboards and rode the wave of rock to the top of the charts.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers” is a fascinating read, chockfull of facts about a variety of topics from American railroads, Library of Congress Folkways recordings to riots at British screenings of “Rock Around the Clock.” The book will appeal to fans of the blues, jazz and folk on both sides of the Atlantic. Few recordings survive, but typing in names into YouTube is a great way to get a feel for the music that changed the British sound.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World” by Billy Bragg, published by Faber and Faber, is available on Amazon in hardback for $23.95.

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