Before Punk, Skiffle Music Gave Voice to a Working Class That Wanted to Dance

Billy Bragg’s new book explores the blue-collar precursor to the British Invasion sound.

Micco Caporale July 13, 2017

Teenagers flock to skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan for an autograph. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

When World War II end­ed for Britain, so did the trap­pings of a tra­di­tion­al work­ing-class iden­ti­ty. Full employ­ment cou­pled with expan­sive wel­fare pro­vi­sions dilut­ed a his­tor­i­cal class con­scious­ness large­ly defined by a shared expe­ri­ence of pover­ty. An increase in wealth and mate­r­i­al secu­ri­ty marked a shift towards more bour­geois expres­sions of class and val­ues (inter­est­ing­ly, with­out access to the same bour­geois oppor­tu­ni­ties). And it also spurred the rise of a new con­sumer group: the work­ing-class teenager.

When a young Pete Townshend saw Ken Colyer play, he thought, "[The guitar] is going to the change the world. … I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye, old timer, and that’s exactly what happened."

With teens earn­ing real wages that had grown by 50 per­cent since 1938 and few look­ing ahead to uni­ver­si­ty (more often, work­ing class youths wound up in mil­i­tary ser­vice), work­ing-class British teens had enough free time and spend­ing pow­er to change the cul­tur­al land­scape. The impact of this social shift is explored by Bil­ly Bragg in his new book Roots, Rad­i­cals and Rock­ers: How Skif­fle Changed the World.

Bragg uses his back­ground as a left­ist activist and folk-rock singer to look at the his­to­ry of skif­fle, a short-lived, dis­tinct­ly British antecedent to rock n’roll propped up by a bur­geon­ing youth move­ment. The sto­ry of skif­fle — a genre best likened to America’s rock­a­bil­ly, with a few key dif­fer­ences — began with a pop­u­lar under­ground jazz musi­cian defect­ing from the British navy. Ken Coly­er had a burn­ing love of blues but had only been able to expe­ri­ence it through record­ings, so in 1952 he secured a month-long immi­gra­tion visa to the Unit­ed States. After his ship docked in Mobile, Alaba­ma, Coly­er fled to New Orleans. His goal? To learn the authen­tic” New Orleans jazz sound at the hands of the mas­ters he’d grown up idolizing.

Cross­ing the ocean to Britain on vinyl, jazz and blues became large­ly divorced from their social con­text. White audi­ences eager­ly con­sumed the record­ings despite strict rules from Britain’s Musi­cians’ Union that pre­vent­ed Amer­i­can musi­cians from tour­ing Eng­land. At that time, British music was prop­er and for­mal: some­thing expressed on a page, a lan­guage one was taught to under­stand. It was played by big bands and orches­tras that required spe­cial train­ing. Jazz and blues, on the oth­er hand, came from some­where else entire­ly. Through records and British-run trade jour­nals, white audi­ences embraced this new style of music with its raw and mod­ern sound. They saw it as some­thing they could teach them­selves. And they loved it. This is what Coly­er and his peers heard lis­ten­ing to artists like Lead Belly..

Coly­er wrote accounts of his musi­cal adven­tures in Amer­i­ca to his broth­er Bill, who cap­i­tal­ized on Ken’s rep­u­ta­tion in the jazz scene by pub­lish­ing his let­ters in Melody Mak­er, a lead­ing music jour­nal. To his low­er-income, land­locked peers, Ken mak­ing it all the way to New Orleans seemed the stuff of dreams. His stay end­ed abrupt­ly, how­ev­er: Ken was deport­ed under leg­is­la­tion that barred threats” to the Amer­i­can way of life such as polit­i­cal rad­i­cals.” As a white man who dared share the stage with Black men in the Jim Crow south, Coly­er was deemed such a rad­i­cal. But he returned to Eng­land a leg­end with a fan base whose ears were already poised for new musi­cal expressions.

Bill Coly­er first intro­duced the term skif­fle” as a musi­cal descrip­tion when he let it slip on-air on the BBC. Ken had put togeth­er a gui­tar-led, roots-based band, a far cry from the pol­ished sax-and-horn jazz pop­u­lar at the time. When asked what to call the music, Bill uncon­scious­ly blurt­ed the word. His­tor­i­cal­ly, skif­fle” had been Black Amer­i­can slang for rent par­ties com­mon in the 1920s, lat­er eulo­gized on boo­gie-woo­gie and rag­time records. But in a lin­guis­tic twist, Bill trans­formed it from an obscure term for a par­ty into a pop­u­lar term for a genre of music that announced the party.

It would be a num­ber of years before skif­fle enjoyed broad cul­tur­al recog­ni­tion — a suc­cess fueled not by Ken Coly­er, but by a recruit to his band, Lon­nie Done­gan. In its ear­li­est days, how­ev­er, skif­fle was an imme­di­ate suc­cess in the U.K. under­ground, where white work­ing-class youth, suf­fo­cat­ing from over a decade of rationing and aus­ter­i­ty, were look­ing for a breath of fresh air.

In 1953, Ted­dy Boys and Girls — or Teds, as mem­bers of the British youth sub­cul­ture are often called — start­ed emerg­ing, iden­ti­fi­able by their Edwar­dian gar­ments and indus­tri­al back­grounds. They reject­ed the sta­t­ic fox­trots of their par­ents for the thrill of jive and bop — dance styles seen as a dis­rup­tion to club éti­quette because of their ener­getic move­ment and their roots in Black cul­ture. Sub­se­quent­ly, the danc­ing styles — along with the Teds — were banned from many venues. Teds rushed in their creep­er shoes to the jazz clubs, where skif­fle was blossoming.

The Teds were mark­ers of the first post-war demo­graph­ic nei­ther child nor adult to sig­nal a shift in the cul­tur­al tide. By the mid-50s, youth cul­ture drove the rise of the cof­fee bar, and their dis­af­fec­tion trans­formed movies, plays„ art and lit­er­a­ture, thrust­ing the var­ied per­spec­tives of anti-heroes, out­laws and fac­to­ry work­ers into the lime­light. Awash in the post-war con­sumerism immor­tal­ized in pop art, rebelling against the croon­er pol­ish that echoed through the air­waves, the three-chord authen­tic­i­ty” of skif­fle was a wel­come respite — made all the more attrac­tive by how easy it was to pro­duce. Sud­den­ly, author­i­ty fig­ures couldn’t dic­tate what music was con­sumed by the younger gen­er­a­tion because kids had the time, mon­ey and venues to make it them­selves, and for each other.

Skiffle’s three-chord pro­gres­sion (lat­er a sta­ple of punk) was lib­er­a­tion for its fans. While root­ed in Amer­i­can Black music, skif­fle revised a song cat­a­logue Black musi­cians and lis­ten­ers had long aban­doned, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fus­ing it with tra­di­tion­al Eng­lish folk songs, sea shanties, coun­try and gospel — all grass­roots musi­cal styles that didn’t require for­mal train­ing to play. Mag­a­zines began run­ning fea­tures on how to make instru­ments for skif­fle bands, fea­tur­ing any­thing from the wash­board to the gui­tar. A direc­tor of one of Britain’s largest instru­ment retail­ers told News of the World that demand for gui­tars had increased ten­fold by the fall of 1956 — less than two years after Lon­nie Done­gan broke into the charts with the first dis­tinct­ly skif­fle hit, a cov­er of Rock Island Line.”

At the close of the decade, skif­fle petered out, leav­ing a blues revival in its wake that would be ful­ly real­ized by rock bands like the Rolling Stones. For all its cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance, though, Bragg may over­state how rad­i­cal” skif­fle was. The music cer­tain­ly betrayed the full cul­tur­al force of teenagers in the wake of World War II, and it pre­dat­ed the anti-author­i­tar­i­an atti­tude and DIY ethos of punk rock by a good 20 years. But besides pro­vid­ing a musi­cal home for a hand­ful of left­ist musi­cians and audio­philes— most notably, Alan Lomax and Peg­gy Seeger, half-sis­ter of famed folk singer Pete Seeger — skif­fle was hard­ly polit­i­cal in a tra­di­tion­al sense. Left­ists like Lomax worked hard to make space for skif­fle on radio pro­grams like Bal­lad and Blues and they invit­ed skif­fle musi­cians to fundrais­ers for com­mu­nist caus­es, but besides songs bor­rowed direct­ly from work­ing-class tra­di­tions, skif­fle was as much about hav­ing fun and being in and out of love as any­thing else. Who was mak­ing the music and how it was being made were skiffle’s most rad­i­cal qual­i­ties of all.

Skif­fle failed to keep Britain’s work­ing-class from polit­i­cal frac­tur­ing, but it did pro­duce a gen­er­a­tion of influ­en­tial work­ing-class musi­cians. The Bea­t­les grew out of skif­fle group the Quar­ry­men — John Lennon, Paul McCart­ney and George Harrison’s best attempt to make Lon­nie Done­gan fan music. When young Pete Town­shend saw Ken Coly­er play, he thought, “[The gui­tar] is going to the change the world. … I was going to get this gui­tar and it was going to be bye-bye, old timer, and that’s exact­ly what hap­pened.” Roots, Rad­i­cals and Rock­ers does a good job of demon­strat­ing the work­ing class’s poten­tial to influ­ence cul­ture. Redis­cov­er­ing a cohe­sive class con­scious­ness could make that cul­tur­al force tru­ly political.

Mic­co Capo­rale is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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