skiffle and the blues

Post-WWII baby boomers in Britain, especially those in England, grew up in a bombed-out environment where most families were poor and could ill afford entertainment or expensive musical instruments. These teenagers of the 1950s also longed for more exciting music and were enthused by authentic American blues, which could be played on crude “musical” instruments such as rub boards, “drums” made of just about anything, and the like. Meanwhile, the British government had banned the emerging American rock and roll music from being played on BBC radio, the only such station operating then.

Not to be denied, these baby boomers tuned in to a pirate radio station called Radio Caroline, operating from an American ship sailing in international waters off the Sussex coast and thus outside the reach of British law. Blues, folk and rock records were also being smuggled into England through port cities such as Liverpool. It was enough input to create a homegrown musical genre called “skiffle,” which became all the rage in England starting in the 1950s, in spite of the fact that it had already been invented in the United States decades before.

Skiffle was first popularized in the United States in the 1920s by blues musicians and was only revived by British bands in the mid-1950s. The term was originally applied to musical parties held in private to raise rent money. Skiffle later came to mean music played by jug bands (in addition to jugs, these bands featured guitars, banjos, harmonicas and kazoos), first in Louisville, Kentucky, as early as 1905. It then became prominent in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1920s and ’30s.

The first use of the term on record was in 1925 in the name of a band called Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. Most often skiffle was used to describe country blues music records, which included the compositions “Hometown Skiffle” (1929) and “Skiffle Blues” (1946) by Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys. The term was also used by Ma Rainey (1886–1939), often called the “mother of the blues,” to describe her repertoire to rural audiences. However, “skiffle” had disappeared from American music by the 1940s.

“In the Britain of the impoverished post-World War II years, young musicians were delighted to discover a style that could be played on a cheap guitar, a washboard scraped with thimbles, and a tea-chest bass (a broom handle and string attached to a wooden case used for exporting tea). Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were the heroes of a movement that had one foot in the blues and the other in folk music,” explains the online version of Britannica. “When singer-banjoist Lonnie Donegan stepped out of the rhythm section of Chris Barber’s Dixieland (traditional jazz) band to record a hopped-up version of Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1954, he was unwittingly laying the foundation of the 1960s British music scene. Released as a single in 1956, ‘Rock Island Line’ was purchased by millions, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who thereby received their first exposure to African-American popular music.”

Lennon and McCartney were among thousands of British boys who, inspired by Donegan, formed skiffle groups—in their case, the Quarrymen—as a first step on the road to rock and roll. Had it not been for skiffle music there probably would not have been a worldwide musical phenomenon called The Beatles. “Before skiffle, many British pop singers tended to be crooners,” Stephen William “Billy” Bragg, an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist, recently told The New York Post. The folk-rocker had just released his 2019 book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, which chronicled the forgotten genre. “Skiffle musicians were the first generation of teenagers to use the guitar to separate themselves from their parents,” Bragg quipped.

There can be little doubt that the revival of skiffle music in England was one of the chief contributors to the rise of rock music there. Would there have been a later “British Invasion” of the U.S. music scene had this revival not occurred? A bigger question might be: why did this revival happen in the first place? “The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots amateur movement, particularly popular among working class males, who could cheaply buy, improvise, or build their own instruments and who have been seen as reacting against the drab austerity of post-war Britain. The craze probably reached its height with the broadcasting of the BBC TV program ‘Six-Five Special’ from 1957. It was the first British youth music program, using a skiffle song as its title music and showcasing many skiffle acts,” explains Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the British rock royalty of the 1960s (and later) tended to downplay their skiffle roots, somewhat like not mentioning an embarrassing high school photo. But not George Harrison, who once said: “If there were no Lead Belly there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”