Skiffle in Britain

The term ‘Skiffle’ is an American term from the 1930s.  See the section on Jug Bands to get a feel for its origins in the rural Southern blues.

In the United States, the term and the genre had all but disappeared in the 1940s.  Skiffle might have been entirely forgotten if not for a revival in Britain during the 1950s.

The post-war jazz scene in Britain saw a move away from the swing music of the Big Bands that had ruled the air-waves up to and during the War.  Cultural trends tend to change drastically following a war people want to begin a new life putting the horror and hardship of wartime existence behind them.  New lives usually mean new forms of art and entertainment.  The recording ban in the U.S. was very poorly timed.  It essentially killed any possibility that the Big Bands could continue their pre-war popularity.  With the Big Bands out of the picture, smaller groups filled the void.  Vocal groups and small combos popped up on both sides of the Atlantic.  Be-Bop began to replace traditional jazz.  Vocalists without fixed backup bands also gained popularity.

Among the bands that emerged during the 1950s in Britain was Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.  They were essentially a traditional jazz band but their banjo player also performed skiffle music during the breaks between sets.  The banjo player was a talented multi-instrumentalist by the name Anthony James “Lonnie” Donegan (April 29th, 1931 – November 3rd, 2002).  He sang and played guitar and was accompanied by two other band members.  The usual instruments were guitar, washboard, and tea-chest bass.  The music they chose was from the classic Jug Band repertoire as well as American folk and blues songs.  They particularly favored songs they had copied from recordings of Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20th, 1888 – December 6th, 1949), better known as “Leadbelly”.  Their style was lively & upbeat, like the old Jug Bands, and they were listed on the promotional posters as “Skiffle Breaks”. Before long, the breaks were more popular than the headlining band.

Skiffle appeared on record for the 1st time by Colyer’s new band in 1954, Chris Barber’s Jazz Band.  Two of the tracks were distinctly ‘skiffle’ and were then released in late 1955 under the name “The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group”.  Donegan’s up-tempo version of Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ (featuring a washboard) had ‘John Henry’ on the B-side.  It was a major hit in 1956 spending eight months in the Top 20, peaking at #6 (and #8 in America). It was the 1st debut record to go gold in Britain, selling over 1,000,000 copies worldwide.

Part of the beauty of this music was that it didn’t require expensive instruments nor did it require a high level of musicianship.  It was fun, entertaining, danceable, and felt very new.  The kids took to it.  It was the success of this single that set off the British skiffle craze.  A few professional bands enjoyed some chart success, including The Chas. McDevitt Group, Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys and The Vipers, but the biggest impact was at a grassroots level: amateurs could do this!  It was particularly popular among working-class boys, who could buy cheap instruments, or even improvise and build their own instruments.  It was a clear reaction against the drab austerity of day-to-day life in financially depressed post-war Britain.  The craze reached its height with the broadcasting of the Six-Five Special from 1957 by BBC TV.  It was the 1st British youth music program, using a skiffle song as its title music and showcasing a variety of skiffle acts.

Among those caught in the craze was a young John Lennon and his Liverpool skiffle group The Quarrymen.  Their first real gig was in 1957.

In the late 1950s it has been estimated that there were as many as 30-50,000 skiffle groups in Britain.  Sales of guitars went through the roof.  There were plenty of potential appreciative audiences in venues including church halls, cafes and coffee bars in any neighborhood.  The cultural center of action began to grow in and around the Soho district in London.  The audiences were very forgiving.  They did not require the musicians to be anywhere near professionals.  Since vocals were such an important part of the music, the bands worked out harmonies as best they could.  What emerged was remarkably fresh.  Many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle during this period.  Some became very well known: Van Morrison, blues pioneer Alexis Korner as well as Ronnie Wood, Alex Harvey and Mick Jagger; folk musicians Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham; rock musicians Roger Daltrey, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Robin Trower and David Gilmour; and popular beat music successes Graham Nash and Allan Clarke of The Hollies. And of course, the Beatles evolved from John Lennon’s skiffle group The Quarrymen.

Lonnie Donegan went on to make a number of popular records as “Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group”.  His successes include ‘Cumberland Gap’ (1957), ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour’ (1958), and ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (1960). The popularity of skiffle began to ebb as it morphed into rock’n’roll and the blues.  It was largely over by 1958 and skiffle enthusiasts moved on to other forms of music, including folk, the blues, and rock’n’roll.

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