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On The Skiffle Trail: A Rock & Roll Journey From New Orleans To Chicago To Britain And Back

Billy Bragg argued last month in a Guardian piece that the British invented the Americana music genre.

The piece was accompanied by a photo of Muddy Waters from the early '50s recording in Chicago, "where it all began."

Actually, the Chicago blues were just a linchpin between skiffle and Americana in Bragg's argument, and it is with skiffle where we too will begin.

Writes Bragg:

"Ken Colyer was a British jazz trumpeter born in 1928 who, like his contemporaries, had learned how to play by listening to old 78 recordings. His hero was Bunk Johnson, a trumpet player who helped define the New Orleans style in the early 1900s. Colyer realized that some of the men who played with Johnson were still alive in New Orleans and, if he could get there, he could learn about the music he loved from the masters themselves.

"In 1952, after joining the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in Mobile, Alabama, Colyer made it to the Crescent City and was invited to sit in with his heroes. But he wanted to know more than just how to play. He was at heart a purist, driven not only to bring these songs to people back home, but to teach them about where the music came from. The old guys in New Orleans sent him out on the bayou to hear roots music played on acoustic guitars, simple three-chord songs in blues and folk styles.

"When he got back to Britain in 1953, Colyer introduced this roots music into his set, calling it 'skiffle.' He was somewhat dismayed when it became more popular with his young audience than the jazz he'd learned in New Orleans. Colyer left his band in disgust but his banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, persevered and inadvertently started the Skiffle Boom."

Here's what Bragg told Kim Ruehl in an interview for No Depression in a piece posted last week:

"The key thing for me is skiffle. Skiffle is a really weird period that doesn't really have a corollary in the United States of America. It's almost like a cult in the 50s. For kids, candy was rationed until the mid-50s. Clothes were rationed. The music on the radio was sort of like [makes a face], and anything American was brilliant. Anything that came from America was exciting - the cowboy programs were fascinating. Davy Crockett was massive in the 50s. Skiffle kind of somehow snuck into that, almost like the craze of hula hoops. It's more like that than a cultural movement. I know, it's weird. But with 15 year old boys, there weren't blues fans. Literally Paul McCartney is 15 when he meets John, who's 17, and they start a skiffle band. These kids use skiffle music to escape austerity, which is all they've ever known. The Beatles were born in the war; the Stones were born in the war. All those bands didn't really know anything else other than austerity.

"Playing music allows you to transcend your surroundings momentarily. What I mean is, my son, who sits in his bedroom and plays his guitar, he's not really in an upstairs flat in England, he's at CBGBs in 1977. Skiffle was a way for kids to pull themselves out of a world they thought was boring and drab and fixated on the past.

"England was trying to work out what was left of the empire and clinging to the Queen. Skiffle became a way of escaping from that.

"Every salient boy in the UK knew the three chords necessary to play Chuck Berry's entire repertoire. When that happened, they were kind of ready, like a bunch of crazy paratroopers who were just waiting for the red light. When the red light came, they started to buy electric guitars, go to Hamburg . . . Obviously American kids were doing the same thing. Bob Dylan was . . . but something else was going on [in America]. There was a frantic energy to escape, in the Brits, that very easily matches up [to skiffle].

"It's almost as if they were trying to plug into rock and roll, they had an American plug trying to plug into a British [wall]. They've got the American type plug and they punched it into rock and roll.

"I mentioned in the article the way the Kingston trio played 'Tom Dooley' as a funeral song, whereas Donegan plays it [claps his hands in rapid succession, singing] 'Lay down your head Tom Dooley.' He's already . . . it's got velocity. It's not far from that to Hamburg. It's not a long way to go. I think for American kids, culture in the 60s, you'd not turn up to your local church fair and play Muddy Waters or Little Richard. It wasn't conceivable. It just wasn't done. Whereas, in the church fairs where Lennon and McCartney went, they were playing Leadbelly, they were playing Little Richard, and it's totally acceptable. That ability to consume American culture without [the baggage] . . . it's a strength of the British to take where it came from, even someone yodeling, and make it acceptable."

Back to Bragg in the Guardian:

"Donegan had recorded Rock Island Line for a jazz record called New Orleans Joys in July 1954. Released as a single 18 months later, it went straight to the top of the charts and inspired a whole generation of British boys - among them Lennon and McCartney - to learn three chords on a guitar.

"The skiffle craze soon fizzled out, but it left behind it a cohort of teenagers hungry to hear blues and folk records made by American artists before the war. Such albums were hard to find and, if you had one, word would get out and every hip kid in the area would be knocking on your door for a listen. It was his impressive collection of records by Chicago bluesmen that first attracted Keith Richards to Mick Jagger in 1962."


Chicago 1924 - 1929 Jazz Skiffle & Jug Style


Streamline Train

"So many skiffle songs were about trains or mention them in some way," the Skiffle Skunks write. "Both The Vipers and The Ken Colyer Skiffle Group recorded great versions of this blues/boogie woogie song back in the 1950s. I think that Ken Colyer learned it from 'Cripple' Clarence Lofton (yes, that really was his nickname), the Chicago singer and boogie woogie piano player, and I reckon The Vipers learned it from Ken."

Lyric: "Now the women in Chicago, they sure do make you tired, they got a hand full of gimme, and a mouthful of obliged."


Midnight Special by Lonnie Donegan


A 14-Year-Old Jimmy Page Plays Skiffle


Mr. Sandman by The Jive Aces Skiffle Combo


As Tears Go By by The Skiffle Kings


Carmelita Skiffle by Mike Bloomfield


Elton John with Lonnie Donegan

"Lonnie Donegan - The King of Skiffle - recorded an album with all-star friends in 1977," RonnieFriend writes. "Elton John played piano on a couple of tracks - this one 'Diggin' My Potatoes,' and also the title track 'Puttin' on the Style.' Both were skiffle classics from the fifties. Ray Cooper played percussion. Brian May (of Queen) played electric guitar! Some of the other tracks featured Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Nicky Hopkins, Leo Sayer . . . "


Sloop John B by Van Morrison and Lonnie Donegan

From The Skiffle Sessions.


London Philharmonic Skiffle Orchestra 2012


Lady Gaga Skiffle Cover


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 9, 2013

MUSIC - At Home Chicago Blues.
TV - How America Doesn't Teach History.
POLITICS - The Remote Learning Divide.
SPORTS - Cancel Culture.

BOOKS - Go Ahead, Eat Those Cheetos.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Suffering With Stoics & Cynics.

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