Skiffle – British 1950s

Skiffle – British 1950s

Skiffle was a term that came over from Black slang in the fifties. It referred to the type of party where music was played and a hat passed round to reward the musicians.

In the post-war period of the fifties things were still bleak in Britain. The cities had been heavily bombed and every street was littered with bomb-sites. There was still rationing, shortages of clothes and austerity. But the war was over and the kids wanted to get out and enjoy themselves. This was the age before TV. Houses just had a radio and, if you were very lucky, a record player which played 78s.

While the States, who had largely escaped the devastation that had ravaged Europe, was enjoying a boom; where the kids were cruising in cadillacs, listening to Rock and R&B and going to drive-ins, we were having a much harder time.

In the States the intelligentsia was getting into Kerouac, Beat poetry and Zen. In Britain it was Trad. Jazz and CND marches.

Chris Barber was one of those Jazz men and he had a liking for the blues. So much so that he brought some of the blues singers over to Britain and introduced British audiences to the real blues. This paved the way for Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner to set up their R&B band Blues Incorporated. So you could say that Chris Barber was the father of the whole Rock scene. He was also the inaugurator of Skiffle.

Chris was a purveyor of authentic New Orleans Jazz and one of the best. But in the interval he allowed a little offshoot of the band to do a slot. They were a pared back group of musicians with basic guitar, bass and snare who did a series of American Folk-Blues numbers by the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and even Woody Guthrie. They proved popular.

At a recording session Chris Barber had a bit of time to kill and allowed the Skiffle group led by Lonnie Donnegan to record a few numbers. The rest is history.

One of the tracks got some airplay and the response was so strong that it was released as a single ‘Rock Island Line’, a Leadbelly number, soared straight to number one and started a country-wide craze. Lonnie Donnegan, who had taken his name from the blues singer Lonnie Johnson, was more popular than Elvis.

The beauty of Skiffle was its simplicity. You only needed two chords and it could be largely played on homemade instruments. You needed your mother’s old washboard with a few thimbles, a tea-chest and broom handle bass, and an old beat-up guitar and you were away. All the lads wanted to be in a band and get the girls. Every town sprouted Skiffle Groups and venues. The country might have been poor but it came alive.

It proved a short-term craze. Lonnie had a number of hits and was joined by the Vipers, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey and a few others and it was over.

Lonnie branched out into novelty songs and Skiffle passed into history. Except it didn’t. The importance of Skiffle wasn’t just in the music and hits it had produced. It had got a whole generation of kids into music and opened up a lot of clubs. Those Skiffle bands learnt more chords, got better instruments and went on to form the Rock and R&B bands that were going to form the Mersey and Beat bands of the British Invasion. The kids had been attracted in, got a taste for performing, had the venues to get up on stage and never looked back. Without Skiffle there might not have been a British Beat boom or an interest in blues.

The Beatles were typical. They started off as the Quarrymen Skiffle group before heading into Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B. Guitar gods like Jimmy Page were the same. Skiffle was transformational.

Just goes to show! Life is changed by the smallest things. If Chris had not had a bit of extra time on the recording session, or had not liked blues and given Lonnie a chance, history would have been different.

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