Lonnie Donegan

A short history of Skiffle

If you’ve seen One Man, Two Guvnors, you’ll be very familiar with the toe-tapping tunes of on-stage skiffle band The Craze. But did you know that members of The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles all started out as skifflers? Paul Galloway tells us more about this relatively short-lived musical genre.

If you couldn’t pay your rent as a black family in Chicago back in the twenties and thirties, you might throw a rent party. That’s when you’d find a piano player or maybe a band, push the furniture back, roll up the rug and invite the neighbourhood in for a dance. A small entrance fee was collected at the door, everyone had a good time, and the landlord got his due. Some great jazz sidemen got their start this way, but the quality of the music didn’t matter so much. Most of these bands were improvised affairs – guitar, banjo, tea-chest bass and, for percussion, whatever sounded good when you hit it or scraped it. The songs were unsophisticated, too, often stuff these immigrants knew from their former lives down south – jug band tunes and blues numbers. One of the many names for these parties was ‘a skiffle’.

Now jump twenty years or so, a world war and the Atlantic Ocean and you’ll find Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen doing pretty well performing Dixieland style in clubs throughout Britain. These white guys were mad aficionados of Negro music and in the intervals between sets their guitar and banjo player Lonnie Donegan (pictured above) would lead a combo that re-created the rent party sound. The novelty of seeing a tea-chest bass being plucked and metal thimbles scraping rhythmically against a washboard got the crowds interested and the cheerfully direct music – folksy and bluesy and not a million miles from the rockabilly then emerging from the American backwoods – kept them listening. The skiffle break became a highlight of the show and when the band, by then led by Chris Barber, recorded their first album at Decca in July 1954, Donegan and his group contributed a few skiffle numbers.

‘Rock Island Line’ was an obscure convict song collected by the American musicologist John Lomax and later recorded by the bluesman Lead Belly, but Donegan sang the tongue-twisting lyrics in double time with a rattling beat behind it. Now, remember that this is before rock ’n’ roll. Bill Haley hadn’t had his first hit in America, let alone Britain, nor had Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley was still driving a truck. So Donegan’s version of ‘Rock Island Line’ was a sensation, a completely new sound for most British people, unsophisticated but packed with energy, and made more fascinating by the hardware-store instrumentation. Other hits followed and other skiffle bands and within a year or so, by some inexplicable social chain reaction, skiffle became a British craze.

To play jazz you had to be a musician; to play skiffle you only had to decide to play skiffle – it was entry level music, no experience required: buy a guitar and learn a few chords, pick up a washboard and find a rhythm, hum into a kazoo, blow into a beer bottle, bang on a biscuit tin. Vocally it required a full voice, an approximate American accent, and the imagination to sense what picking cotton is all about. Skiffle fit pretty well into the public music-making tradition of the working class – you can think of it as mixing the pub sing-a-long and the playing of spoons – and young lads took it up in their thousands. The guitar, up to then a rather exotic instrument associated in the English mind with gypsies and cowboys, became the focus of youthful desire, and when the guitars ran out in the music stores, the salesmen pushed the banjos and mandolins.

Skiffle became the nursery of British rock ’n’ roll. Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Joe Brown and all four of the Shadows received their basic training in skiffle. Bill Wyman and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke of the Hollies, Roger Daltry of the Who, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin were all teenage skifflers. The most hallowed moment in pop music history, the introduction of Paul McCartney to John Lennon, happened after Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarry Men played at a church fete in 1957.

Crazes have too much energy not to burn out as quickly as they flare up. The skiffle boom lasted at most three or four years. The keenest players moved on to rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll, which were more challenging, amplified and, most importantly for young men, sexier. (Impressing a lass is so much easier with an electric guitar than a washboard and thimbles.) Donegan and a few others kept skiffling into the sixties, adding English music hall and folk songs to the repertoire and incorporating blues and rock elements to keep it fresh. But it had had its day. Donegan’s last British chart entry was in 1962, the year of the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’. The following year, the Beatles released their first LP, ‘Please Please Me’, and that was it for skiffle.

You can hear Paul McCartney covering ‘Rock Island Line’ in the clip below, and you can see skiffle band The Craze in action in One Man, Two Guvnors until 29 June at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse.

Published on 10 June 2013