Beatles fans know the date as holy writ: July 6, 1957, when Paul McCartney met John Lennon for the very first time and showed him how to tune his guitar. A couple of weeks later, McCartney joined Lennon’s band—and the rest is history.
That band wasn’t playing rock ’n’ roll as such. Instead, the Quarrymen were playing a style of music called skiffle, mixing elements of American country and western, jazz, and blues with pub singalongs to create a sound that was uniquely British. English musician Billy Bragg, who himself has blended a folky sound with a punk sensibility ever since he came on the scene in the early 1980s, characterizes skiffle as fulfilling two DIY rules, or perhaps better anti-rules. “One,” he says from his home in London, “you don’t have to be American to play American music. And two, you don’t have to be a musician to make music.”
The skiffle craze, which dominated Britain in the mid-1950s, was one that welcomed and encouraged amateurs, as Bragg chronicles in his new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. Many of those amateurs became professionals, thanks in part to the mentorship of older musicians such as Alexis Korner, who, says Bragg, “had a very bluesy take on skiffle.” The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds emerged through Korner’s London club gigs and, through them, the stirrings of Led Zeppelin—music, in other words, that would soon come to dominate the charts and the airwaves.
But at first, British youngsters by the thousands were picking up guitars and forging their own sound, largely inspired by the legendary Lonnie Donegan, skiffle’s first star. Bragg points out that in the postwar austerity era, when rationing was a recent memory, skiffle became the first real expression of a new phenomenon: the teenager. “That first generation of teenagers used music to escape from the world they were growing up in,” he says. “They made music to have fun and to have something to do.”
But they were reshaping the world, too. Skiffle had a political dimension, a self-aware, decidedly left-leaning take on things, along the lines of what Woody Guthrie was teaching nascent folkies to do back in the States. On that note, it’s no accident that Bragg, who was born just after the skiffle boom crested, a few months after that Lennon-McCartney summit, should have teamed up with the Chicago-based band Wilco to record three albums of forgotten Guthrie lyrics. It’s also no accident that Bragg recently crisscrossed the United States by train—“a lot of the best skiffle songs are railroad songs,” he says—busking at stations, performing skiffle songs for audiences that may never have heard the sound.
“Yes, skiffle never quite got back across the ocean,” Bragg says. “But some of the sound is similar to what was going on in the States. Lonnie Donegan was recording his biggest hit just a week apart from Elvis’ recording of ‘That’s All Right Mama,’ ” a song that would ignite a craze or two itself, including rockabilly, skiffle’s “blood brother.”
Skiffle gave way long ago to the harder-edged, bluesier, American-inspired rock ’n’ roll, which found British bands like the Beatles well-prepared and ready to run with it. “Having been around for the birth of punk, I wanted to look at another formative sound that welcomed all comers,” Bragg says. His broad-ranging history of skiffle, one hopes, will inspire new interest in a forgotten sound.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.