Skiffle – from Rock Routes – a book on Rock Music by Opher Goodwin



The word Skiffle comes from the USA where it was used to describe a certain type of impromptu upbeat New Orleans jazz played at house parties. It was coined and imported into Britain by the Trad Jazz trumpeter Ken Colyer after one of his visits to New Orleans in the early 1950s.

British Skiffle is unlike Rock in that it had its roots in Black USA Folk Blues as played by such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

It emerged out of the Trad Jazz bands that were so very popular in Britain in the early 1950s. It had its origins in the 1940s with bands such as Bill Bailey and Freddy Legons Original London Blue Blowers who used kazoo and comb and paper among their instruments. At the start of 1950 Ken Colyer formed the Crane River Band and from 1952 onwards they featured Lonnie Donnegan.

Lonnie is the man most associated with Skiffle because of the great success he had with it and the interest it precipitated. His real name was Anthony Donegan and he was born in Glasgow in 1931. He changed his name to Lonnie after appearing on the same bill as Lonnie Johnson at the Festival Hall in 1952 and being completely smitten by his act.

In 1953 Lonnie joined the Chris Barber Trad Jazz Band where he was given a spot with a pared back band doing Skiffle versions of Folk Blues. It started as a novelty break and they were known as the Skiffle section. They got their break in a recording session. There was a break and they got to record four tracks. These were released and became a huge success. ‘Rock Island Line’ and eventually went to number one. Lonnie struck out on his own. Skiffle was born.

The release of ‘Rock Island Line’ was really a matter of chance. The song, recorded almost by accident, ended up on a Chris Barber album. Following radio play it received so many requests that Decca brought it out as a single. It was released in 1955 but was a slow burner finally becoming a hit in 1956. It was also a great smash in the Stats going on to sell more than a million copies.

The record sparked off a trend because of three reasons. Firstly it was the sparse instrumentation (Lonnie – guitar and vocals/Beryl Bryden on washboard/Chris Barber – bass). Secondly as it featured authentic black folk music it appealed to the Jazz purists. Thirdly it was fast and spirited capturing the attention of young people.

One of the important features of Skiffle was that it was played on cheap or even home-made instruments. These included kazoo, comb and paper, tea-chest bass, washboards and thimbles, spoons and old beat-up guitars and banjos. This made it accessible to young kids who were still trying to struggle out of the depression created by the war.

Lonnie Donegan had big hits with other Leadbelly, Guthrie and USA Folk numbers – ‘Cumberland gap’, ‘Lost John’, ‘Bring a little water Sylvie’, ‘John Henry’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’, ‘Tom Dooley’, and ‘Midnight Special’ before veering off into a series of novelty humorous rubbish about chewing gum and dustmen.

Other bands quickly emerged on this scene. There was Chas McDevitt with Nancy Whiskey who had a hit with ‘Freight train’, Johnny Duncan & the Bluegrass Boys – ‘Last train to San Fernando’, Wally Whyton with the Vipers – ‘Don’t you Rock me daddy-o’.

Overnight there were thousands of impromptu young Skiffle groups all over the country. Youngsters were getting involved with music in a way that had never happened before. Many of these Skiffle bands were destined to emerge later in the 1960s as British Beat Bands. They had gained a musical education in Skiffle and when the mood changed were able to adapt their style, embrace the new Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B and become the driving force of the British invasion. A good example of this was John Lennon’s Quarrymen who went on to become the Beatles.

In the 1950s Skiffle, like 1970s Punk, was played at a furious pace and was an extremely energetic sound. Many Skiffle songs would start of slowly and gradually build up speed like a locomotive pulling out of a station. It gradually built up speed towards a thundering crescendo in which the words would tumble out in a tongue twisting stream. Often the form of the original folk song would be all but obliterated.

Throughout 1956 and 1957 the whole of Britain was wild with Skiffle fever. There were thousands of bands spawning small clubs and coffee houses. They were buzzing with the sound of American Folk Blues played at a blistering pace. Interestingly if one of these early singles is played at 33RPM instead of its 45 RPM it sounds like the authentic black folk blues sound.

The beauty of Skiffle was that it was music to thrash along to and go and see live. As you can see from the relatively few successful bands it was a style mainly performed by amateur bands that did not transfer to vinyl very well. It did not really take off abroad. Lonnie had a few hits in the States and faded away.

What put pay to the Skiffle movement was the advent of US Rock ‘n’ Roll. Skiffle could not compete. It had had its day.

Never the less Skiffle is immensely important. It was the precursor of British Rock and helped pave the way for the British Beat explosion. It created an environment where the infrastructure was put in place for what was to follow. The clubs ad coffee bars were up and running. British rockers like Hank B Marvin and Jet Harris were playing in places like ‘The Breadbasket’ and the ‘2 is’ coffee bars in Soho London. They switched over from the Vipers to become Cliff’s backing band – first as the Drifters and then the Shadows.

It also served to whet the public’s interest in black blues music. It introduced a greater number of people to authentic blues and the work of US political folkies such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Alexis Korner, who emerged out of the Ken Colyer Band was to go and virtually set up the whole British Blues/R&B scene single handedly was one such person.

Through these direct and indirect ways Skiffle had a tremendous effect on the development and evolution of British Rock music. Without it there is the strong possibility that British Beat and R&B would simply not have developed and Britain would not have gone on to become a world force in Rock ‘n’ Roll. We would have languished like Norway.


Artist Stand out tracks
Lonnie Donegan Rock island line

Cumberland gap

Lost John

John Henry

Bring a little water Silvie

Don’t you rock me daddy-o

Grand coulee dam

I’m Alabamie bound

Wabash Cannonball

Muleskinner blues

Tom Dooley

Jack O’Diamonds

Frankie & Johnny

Pick a bale of cotton

Take this hammer

Have a drink on me

Pick a bale of cotton

Vipers Don’t you Rock me Daddy-O

Maggie May

Cumberland Gap

Streamline train

It takes a worried man

Chas McDevitt Freight train
Ken Colyer All the girls go crazy about the way I walk
Johnny Duncan & Bluegrass Boys Last train to San Fernando
Don Lang & Frantic Five Six Five Special
Chris Barber/Johnny Duncan Doing my time


Everything you ever wanted to know about Rock Music!

If you would like to purchase this book in either digital or paperback it is available on Amazon.

In the UK:


In the USA :

Opher Goodwin

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