Superb account, by British folk-punker Bragg (A Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics, 2016, etc.), of the politically aware, working-class skiffle craze of the 1950s.
The so-called British Invasion of the 1960s was a repurposing of American music, a mix of blues, jazz, and country, that young people on the other side of the pond were hearing over American Armed Forces Radio and on records brought by Yankee ships. Yet there was a forgotten intermediary: skiffle. Born of old-school British takes on jazz, it added a rebellious racket, with a strong rhythm section built on bass, drums, and often washboard; throw thunderous guitars into the mix in the place of trombones and clarinets, and you have a homegrown recasting of an alien art form, one populated by unsung heroes and forgotten moments. Bragg finds skiffle on what he calls the “dead ground of British pop culture,” and he aims to sing of those heroes and to recall their glories—and glories they were, marking a movement that anticipated punk in its insistence on DIY performances hampered largely by a lack of outlets for recorded music. The author traces skiffle to the early ’50s, giving pride of place to Lonnie Donegan, a player whose recording of the old Lead Belly song “Rock Island Line”—covered at about the same time by Elvis Presley in the U.S.—was a kind of declaration of skiffle’s intent. It took some time for the moment to get going; as Bragg writes, “David Whitfield and Mantovani could sleep soundly in their beds,” at least for a little while, until skiffle overwhelmed their easy-listening ways. But when it did, there was little to stop the likes of Alexis Korner and the Ghouls from raising a ruckus—and after them not just the Beatles, famously founded on skiffle, but also the Rolling Stones, whose founders cut their teeth on the skiffle sound.
Writing with an expert practitioner’s appreciation for music, Bragg tells the story of British rock-’n’-roll’s forerunner with verve and great intelligence.