After about 60 years of absence the word ‘Skiffle’ has suddenly made a reappearance in the news leaving a number of people, particularly younger ones, scratching their heads and wondering “Huh?” Surprising as it might seem there are actually some people out there – intelligent people with O levels, Tufty Club badges and a full set of Pokémon trading cards who do not know what skiffle is – and why it might be of interest to the population of St Margarets… so here is a crash course.
Skiffle was the name given to a form of popular music consisting of American folk songs played on homemade instruments that started a musical and social revolution back in the early 1950’s. Our connection is it was spawned and nurtured on our local river – The Crane
The story starts in 1948 when Ken Colyer, an amateur musician living in Hounslow, put together a band to play the old time jazz music of New Orleans. As they had been rehearsing in Cranford on the banks of the River Crane they called themselves the Crane River Jazz Band – and took the gospel standard ‘Down by the Riverside’ as their theme tune. By the summer of 1949 ‘The Cranes’ were confident enough to start their own jazz club in the White Hart pub in Cranford. ‘The Crane River Jazz Club’ was an immediate success. True to the spirit of old New Orleans instead of playing records during the interval Ken and his chums bashed out American folk songs on guitars, accompanied by kazoos, washboard and double bass.
In 1952 Ken Colyer decided to make a pilgrimage to New Orleans to check out his favourite music at first hand. In his absence two of the former ‘Cranes’ – clarinettist Monty Sunshine and guitarist/banjo player Tony ‘Lonnie’ Donegan started a new band with trombonist Chris Barber. Hoping that Ken would join them on his return they continued playing Ken’s popular ‘guitar and washboard’ interval sessions. But Ken wasn’t coming back so quickly. He was locked up in New Orleans for not having a work permit!
On July 13th 1954 this new band went into a studio to record an album. During the session Chris, Lonnie with Beryl Bryden on washboard recorded a couple of their ‘interval’ songs and in so doing changed the musical and social face of the U.K forever. Eventually released in December 1955 ‘Rock Island Line’ backed with ‘John Henry’ reached the Top Ten in both the UK and America and launched a musical revolution called Skiffle. In a world of primped and powdered professional singers, where musical tastes were determined by middle aged bandleaders and instruments were taught, not learnt Skiffle was exactly the musical rebellion that bored teenagers were looking for. It was wild, improvised and above all – very, very easy to play. That’s why anyone with a guitar, washboard or tea chest bass was doing it! Every school, every youth club, every coffee bar had at least one skiffle group thumping away in a corner. It was estimated that in the late 1950s, there were 30,000-50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. There were skiffle programmes on the radio and skiffle clubs in every basement. Its detractors may have protested that “skiffle is piffle” but it was selling a lot of vinyl and because of it thousands of young people were learning how to make music. From out of these primitive groups came some of the most famous and successful bands of the 60’s. The Shadows, the Beatles, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees, the Kinks and a thousand others have all acknowledged their debt to Skiffle. Ken Colyer may have launched it in Cranford but it was Lonnie Donegan who demonstrated that anyone could play it — and so everyone did!
Now the original skifflers are passing from us. This week ‘The Guardian’ reported the death of Pete Shotton, who once played washboard in John Lennon’s skiffle group ‘The Quarrymen’. Pete and John first met up when they were six. They were so similar in character and so good at finding themselves in hot water that the troublesome pair were known as Lotton and Shennon. Pete’s many claims to fame included suggesting to Paul McCartney that the priest in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ should be called ‘Father McKenzie’ rather than ‘Father McCartney’. He also asserted that the line in the song ‘Help’, " I do appreciate you being around" was a thank you to him from John Lennon.
The other Skiffle reference this week comes with the publication of ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers’ by Billy Bragg – a man who knows his way around a washboard. The book tells how Skiffle changed the world, from its earliest form in the blues, work songs and field chants of pre-civil war America to the rise in the 1960’s of the British supergroups like the Kinks and the Beatles…
“…the kids who picked up guitars after hearing ”Rock Island Line" used it to escape the drab world of post-war austerity, a process that led them to create some of the greatest British pop, rock and folk music of the following decades."
‘ROOTS, RADICALS AND ROCKERS’ by Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg talks about the birth of Skiffle.