Without skiffle music, The Beatles might not have happened.
Never heard of it? Popular in Britain in the 1950s, the music craze was heavily influenced by old American blues and jug band music, and often played on improvised instruments. It sounded like a British cousin to American rockabilly.
“Before skiffle, many British pop singers tended to be crooners,” Billy Bragg tells The Post. The folk-rocker has just released his new book “Roots, Radicals and Rockers,” which chronicles the forgotten genre. “Skiffle musicians were the first generation of teenagers to use the guitar to separate themselves from their parents.”
John Lennon was one such teen. His skiffle group the Quarrymen played a now-famous set at a Liverpool church fête in July 1957, when the future Beatle was just 16 years old. In the crowd was another skiffle enthusiast named Paul McCartney. The two met after the performance, and later that year, McCartney would become a member of the Quarrymen himself, forming a partnership that had a lasting impact.
That same year, a 13-year-old boy named James (or “Jimmy”) Page appeared on a BBC talent show. After playing “Mama Don’t Want to Skiffle Anymore” with his band, he then informed the show’s host that he was interested in pursuing “biological research” after leaving school. Tragically, his dream of staring at germs all day went unrealized, and he ended up playing guitar in Led Zeppelin instead.
On the strength of those two cases alone, skiffle’s influence on rock ’n’ roll history is massive, but as Bragg says, it’s not trumpeted as loudly as it should be.
“Pop and rock music became serious in the late 1960s,” says the 59-year-old Bragg. “So in that context, when Rolling Stone magazine asked someone like Jimmy Page who inspired him to play guitar, he’s not going to say [obscure skiffle queen] Nancy Whiskey, is he? You’re more likely to say Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly.”
One of its prime exponents was Lonnie Donegan, whose version of “Rock Island Line” (a traditional folk song made famous by Lead Belly) hit the Top 10 in both the US and the UK in 1955. Although skiffle didn’t stick much in the US (especially as Elvis Presley dominated American music during the mid-’50s), it spread rapidly across the UK. Aside from Lennon and McCartney’s interest, George Harrison was also a Donegan fanatic, and one of Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles groups was called the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group.
“Roots, Radicals and Rockers” is Bragg’s attempt to shine a light on a genre that was vital in forming talents like this — even if they didn’t always admit to it. “I think they put skiffle in the attic, a little bit. Like a yearbook photo you don’t want anyone to see — there was no credibility. I think it was treated like juvenilia, but it shouldn’t be. Skiffle deserves more.”
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