How Skiffle Changed the World: A Conversation with Billy Bragg

Beforehand, if folk music was being sung in a social context, it was often a cappella. How widespread and influential was the skiffle moment? It says, “No, that music is manufactured. Even somebody like Richard Thompson, who seems very far from this, is rooted in skiffle. It was. British punk is so much more political, if you think of the great American punk bands, like X, Television, the Ramones, compared to any Clash album. And this is somebody who in the United States isn’t very well known, not a Miles Davis–level name, but half of Sussex University was out to see him. Yeah, the Diggers and all that! There are programs for children, and there are programs for adults, but there’s no space for teenagers in the middle. And back then you would come out with a very overdriven electric guitar, you maybe played everything on the bridge pickup, so it was all a little distorted, a little broken up. And I tried to make the book engaging without making it just a straight, linear story — this happened and this happened, you know. You know, people like Ken Colyer and Barber and those guys, they would back her up singing her gospel songs. Right — and Bill Broonzy! Well, I think they’re absolutely crucial figures. Well, what I didn’t want it to be is academic. The kids weren’t going to take material from Tin Pan Alley, because that was anathema to them. Because white American blues singers were so well aware of the racial connotations of, you know, sort of musical blackface, that they were very careful with the material. I wouldn’t say for England, but I was certainly trying to keep alive the English idea of punk. They have no alternative but to start making it themselves. But skiffle itself — there’s not a lot of range to it. You have Joe Boyd in the book, and you mention Bert Jansch … It seems that Brit-folk thing, which is so rooted in old folk traditions, is also rooted in skiffle. Rex, Bert Jansch, Mott the Hoople, the Who, punk rock, and so on without skiffle. They were very influential, playing guitars and singing those old Appalachian folk songs, which are fundamentally British folk songs. And young women also, they’re identifying themselves by their culture, which is based around going to the coffee bars, the espresso bars. I mean, the Quarrymen were basically a skiffle group …
The Beatles were still a skiffle group when they got to Hamburg, let me tell you. From the Beatles and the Stones through punk, it felt like everything cool starting with “Love Me Do” was British. And I read a lot of books about music. That was the other thing, there weren’t any electric guitars in the United Kingdom. Last year, he recorded an album with Los Angeles roots musician Joe Henry called Shine a Light, dedicated to songs about trains and railroads, and the accompanying world tour featured exceptional between-song banter. It must have been shocking. They were playing Django, some of those guys. Right. And youth were a marginalized community in the United Kingdom, in the sense that they weren’t visible, they didn’t have any opportunity to express themselves in mainstream culture. Well, when I’m writing a narrative song, I’m sort of reaching back for ideas, for a framework from the history of rock culture — looking at other ways of doing it, and trying to work out how to tell that story in a way that people can connect with. But between your singing and your accent — there’s always been this emphasis that you’re a guy from London and you’re committed to a certain British lineage of rock and roll. It was rejecting the musical mores of the time. Skiffle is a rejection of Tin Pan Alley. A lot of the hip young black kids in the ’50s and ’60s wanted to listen to bebop. So I looked at the books about music I really like, and I studied how they connected things — how deep to go into this particular area, and how to keep it engaging, but not too fluffy. What skiffle does is put the guitar in there. That was my main thing. So, in that sense, content was second to style again, and I was against that, and I was trying to put content above style. It’s all the same 20 songs, played pretty much the same way. You would expect to hear music played on guitars. Lennon and McCartney are writing their own songs because skiffle has empowered them. It’s the fact that British kids learn to play three chords on a guitar when they’re 12 or 14 years old that gives them a two- to three-year head start on their white American contemporaries. And skiffle was the medium that made them visible. You know, Woody to do the solo thing, and punk to do the cranked-up thing. One of the guys I interviewed for the book who played back in those days said to me that the average skiffler had more in common with an African-American sharecropper than with their own dad. Was that something you were trying for? Ken Colyer’s story would make a great biopic — you know, going down to New Orleans and getting arrested and all that stuff. This is a sophisticated culture for young women, their way of saying that they’re different from their parents. I would have said the link I was conscious of at the time was between the Clash and Woody Guthrie. [Producer] Joe Boyd told me in the book that when he first heard Lonnie Donegan he was amazed that any white singer would sing a blues song with such abandon. Skiffle is very much … it’s kind of like what they used to say in the war. It’s only in ’57 that the BBC finally decides that teenagers, who don’t pay the license fee, deserve a program of their own. The guitar comes in and puts folk music in the orbit of young people. Forget it! That generation deserves to have their story told. They’re playing gigs. Well, that’s the other side of appropriation! For a lot of people, that’s the first time they heard about that. It was like Dylan, if he had started out electric, and the songs were written by Joe Strummer. And that was recognized by the mainstream media, because skiffle was the first culture that British teenagers adopted that was visible: these kids going out with an acoustic guitar, a bass made out of an old upside-down tea chest, and a washboard. In fact, it was the antithesis of that. Because the British youth identified with this material so strongly, when the people who made it came over, they played concert halls much bigger than they would have played in the United States. Culturally, what was happening in my country at the time, push was coming to shove. It’s still within living memory — those people are still around, but they’ll soon be gone. It’s interesting, too, because there’s obviously a connection between you and Woody —   you made those records with Wilco — and your music has American roots. And you’d pick up a Strat, probably. Were you conscious of that? I’m doing a gig tonight based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. We can’t look back and say, “They didn’t do this, and they didn’t develop to that, and the scene only lasted for a little while.” Punk only lasted for a little while too, about 18 months, and at that point most of the charts in my country were dominated by ABBA and disco. You’re known as an eloquent songwriter, and your between-song banter is very effective — you’re a great storyteller. That’s what I was most conscious of. I think of the American Folk Blues Festival, where they brought Lonnie Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson and others over to the United Kingdom —   I think Mick and Keith went up to Manchester to see that. The people who stood up then went on to do world-changing things. He wanted to be Hank Marvin. All this came back to me when I was reading this book. Uh, vaguely, remind me …
It’s a thing that’s a current craze in the playgrounds. What it does at the time is hampered by the fact that there is no existing youth culture for it to plug into. The German guy who looked after them told someone in the ’60s that when they got to Hamburg they were playing this “dreadful washboard music,” he called it. Donegan’s guitar player, Nevil Skrimshire, learned by playing Django stuff. It reads like a real social history. And there were so many chapters of Dylan, it would be hard to pin down …
Right, whereas Woody at the time was more of a two-dimensional figure that represented, you know, “This Land Is Your Land,” and that was a better link for me. So let me bring this back to your career a little bit. So narrative has become very, very important to me. For British kids to pick up that instrument was a both a declaration of independence from their parent’s culture and a statement of identification with a marginalized community. He couldn’t remember the name of it. And it all happened in the States, until the Beatles and Stones came over. Now, that could be anything. This is more of a social history than just a musical story. I think you have a song inspired by Hill, “World Turned Upside Down.” That’s the first time I heard about that whole English Civil War period. Kids picked up guitars partly because the BBC wouldn’t play “Rock Around the Clock.” And I think they say, you know, “After everything we’ve been through, you’re now gonna ration rock and roll? No, most people don’t! As well as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Bragg, who spoke by phone from the road, appears at the GRAMMY Museum to discuss the book on October 9. What skiffle means is guitar music. And the guitar was a symbol of that. I mean, shit. They wanted to identify specifically with African-American music. Then suddenly the biggest, coolest bands in the world are British. Because in British pop culture the guitar wasn’t a familiar instrument. Because we bounced out of the war with a lot of confidence and wealth, and we hadn’t lost nearly as many men as you had. We’re gonna play this shit ourselves.” It’s a reaction against the scarcity of music that they felt belonged to them. You know, it had to be acoustic guitars, because that’s all they had. That would be your guy. Whereas Donegan had no idea about that, he had no concept of that. And if it was being played, it was on a fiddle, or a concertina, or a piano. I don’t read a huge amount of fiction, but I read a lot of nonfiction. There’s one other thing that strikes me about the book. But in our context, it’s our indigenous folk music with African-American blues, and a bit of calypso from the first wave of postwar immigration from the Caribbean. But is it really the same muscle as writing a narrative song? American punk was rejectionist, but it wasn’t rejecting the system. Right, there weren’t that many role models if you were a British teenager in the early ’60s. Mick said he’d been in skiffle groups. Yeah, I didn’t know any of that. Skiffle was less like the punk scene and more like — do you know what a fidget spinner is? ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: Let’s talk about the book a little bit. There’s a moment before, and a moment after, and that moment is “Rock Island Line.”
Do you read books like Austerity Britain, or Eric Hobsbawm, or Christopher Hill? I mean, some of those guys are playing Charlie Christian. And the young boys, who are playing skiffle in scout huts and school halls and church halls — they realize the young girls are in the coffee bars, so they go to the coffee bars to find them. It had to create its own space. Was that conscious? It was their grandparents’ music. That was a huge thing for British kids and British musicians of the ’60s generation. And also the lack of any considerations about musical appropriation, which was simply not an issue. So you’ve got these two factors: the youth of the British participants in skiffle — every sentient schoolboy in the United Kingdom learns three chords on a guitar — and the fact that, because of the scarcity of material, they’re having to write their own songs. He said, “The trouble with the Beatles was, they thought Lonnie Donegan was Elvis.”
And then, of course, there’s the Rolling Stones. I remember pointing out to somebody how professional and persuasive the book is, and they said, “Well, Billy Bragg is a narrative songwriter.” So that’s part of it. Bragg argues that skiffle was actually the first form of “Americana,” and uses it to tell a cultural history of Britain between World War II and the emergence of the Beatles. I think his first band was a Shadows tribute band. And you just sang — maybe you had a trumpeter for some songs —   but mainly it was just Billy Bragg, alone with his guitar and his songs. Yeah, I was pleased to see Pete in here. And Alan Lomax was in London. I don’t have any particular theory on it, but when I was a student in the United Kingdom I remember that Art Farmer, the flugelhornist, was playing in Brighton, and when I went to see him, half the kids I knew were at this show. I first saw you in 1985 at the old 9:30 Club …
Oh, the good old 9:30 Club! Hank was king. I wonder, was it difficult for you to write a real historical study on a very complicated subject like this? I thought punk and early Dylan were your roots. There was no mass movement of school-aged boys playing three-chord blues songs in the United States. And people like Shirley Collins go to the archives and find songs and start singing them. I’ve had so many great letters from people who’ve said to me, “I used to be in a skiffle band,” or, “My dad was in a skiffle band, and I never really understood what he was on about, but now I’ve read your book and now I get it, why he was so enthused about it.”
So I’m really, really pleased about that. But you really give us a lot of detail about what motivated these people —   the Colyer brothers, Lonnie Donegan, and so on. But now we have hindsight. Bill Broonzy was an incredible guitar player as well. And the great thing about skiffle was, when it happened, by pure coincidence, Peggy Seeger was in London. Bragg’s most recent project is Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. By then there was a trad jazz circuit, and she played in that context. Those kinds of books you return to again and again, because they’re so important. It’s a revolutionary story because of what they went on to do. Those were the places where you heard the guitar in British culture. Because I didn’t feel I could compete with Dylan, but I think I was connected with that — sort of one-man, sort of political — standing there, trying to make sense of the world. The implications of what they were doing weren’t exactly clear to them at the time. Even the Ramones didn’t have that political edge to them. And the way I chose to assert that was through a bit of punk and a bit of Woody. It’s a musical culture that comes out of austerity, and you sketch how there was a real contrast with the States. And that’s the real significance of skiffle. Which is a crazy kind of thing. It could have been a significantly shorter book if you hadn’t filled in the characters. And that it connected on a sort of visceral level. When I was making “A New England,” in 1983, punk had sort of passed, and we were on to the New Romantics style. Even though most of them dismiss skiffle as juvenilia, it was a key moment, and it deserves to have a light shone on it. I wanted to put skiffle in the context of other things that were going on in our country. Well, the thing that’s absolutely crucial about Britain is that they weren’t aware of any racial connotations in listening to music, and, more importantly, in performing it. They were socio-political, in a way that even the Ramones weren’t, really. It was something that was played by marginalized people: blues singers and calypso singers — both people of color — and singing cowboys. I mean a really big influence on British guitar players was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Brian Jones seemed to have a different musical personality every couple of years …
Well, the thing you have to understand is that, if you were a 15-year-old in 1957 and you went to a place and it said, “Tonight: Skiffle,” you wouldn’t just expect to hear Lonnie Donegan songs. It’s a thing that you spin on your fingers. The range of people who ended up having some roots in skiffle is kind of amazing. That’s our crossroads. It’s effective, but not a polymathic music. But what you have to understand with skiffle is that they were the very first. They aren’t looking to the United States for their culture, they’re looking to Paris and Rome. And the way she played that electric guitar — I mean, people had never seen anything like that in Britain before, because this was before the rock and rollers came over. But it turns out it’s really the taproot of a huge amount of British rock and folk music. They used to put up posters during the war, encouraging people to utilize everything, and the slogan was “Make Do and Mend.” And skiffle is kind of like a make-do-and-mend culture. That’s how Lennon and McCartney started writing songs. The place you can hear the song is a radio show called Family Favourites, where people can request a song. Skiffle opened a lot of doors for a lot of people on a lot of levels. And then our first generation of British teenagers comes along, and their first radio program is called Saturday Skiffle Club. And, of course, Chris Barber, whose band included Donegan when they played “Rock Island Line.” Barber played an absolutely key part in that. It’s all from the Library of Congress, or wherever they get their records. You have one crossroads, which is kind of R&B and country. The load-out there is the alleyway John Wilkes Booth ran down after he assassinated Lincoln. If you play soccer you can impress your mates, if you play skiffle you can impress girls. But these kids, it was the first time they were really visible to mainstream culture. They’re having to fill the gaps between words that they can’t understand or they can’t quite hear, or they can’t get the record but someone else is playing the song and they like it so they take the chorus and write their own verses. For an American, skiffle is one of those things that you just vaguely hear about — you know there was something called skiffle that came before the Beatles, maybe you’ve heard of Lonnie Donegan — and that’s usually it. But this book doesn’t read like it was written by a rock musician on holiday. Yeah, I’ve certainly read a lot of Christopher Hill, and Hobsbawm’s The Short Twentieth Century, that kind of stuff. For instance, there isn’t a radio program for teenagers on the BBC when Donegan has his hit. So kids would tune in to that, hoping enough people had requested the song so they would hear it. It was revolutionary. But I think you said that in Britain it was even illegal to manufacture ice cream through the mid-’60s, everything was so tightly rationed. Obviously that’s different from the African-American experience, but the symbolism of picking up a guitar is this: we are different. The music produced in that period is not as significant as what those same kids do when they’re five, six, seven years older. Rock Against Racism, these kinds of things, they all fed into what people were angry about. We take it for granted that British kids always played guitars and wrote songs — they didn’t! OCTOBER 8, 2017

MUSIC FANS have known Billy Bragg since the mid-’80s, when he belted out strident, well-crafted songs of politics and love, armed only with an electric guitar and a thick East London accent. I think the young girls have as much of a role in making this scene as the young men with guitars do. As opposed to the American idea. No, not at all, not at all. The very fact that they stood there and played was revolutionary. But that 18 months between Donegan’s first hit and the end of the skiffle period is not when rock and roll comes in. And the other thing about skiffle is that it’s self-empowering. There was a fascist party, the National Front. This book explains how this little island nation came to dominate the rock-and-roll scene. The way the story is told in the States is that Elvis walked into Sun Studio and cut “That’s All Right,” and you have Chuck Berry and some other people bringing country and the blues together, and that became rock and roll. As you lay out in your book, we wouldn’t have had the Beatles, the Stones, T. That was where the edge was, it wasn’t in that old-timey stuff. I’m trying to pick up on what’s going on. You know, before the Beatles, Hank was king. People know skiffle, they know Donegan, but they don’t really understand the context. They all wanted to be Hank Marvin back then. It’s the crossroads, really, of British folk music and African-American roots music. Woody was a better link for me than Dylan. For African-American youth, I think an idiom like the blues was tied up with ideas of poverty and of bondage. Sister Rosetta came over a few times in the ’50s and ’60s, and she played in the trad jazz clubs. If you put out a record without a narrative, you’re not really going to connect with people. If you could find one! You don’t think that there was a generational thing in that music, but there certainly was. You hear Pete Townshend talk about Big Bill Broonzy. You know, the idea that it had to be about something. All of a sudden, they bring their guitars to skiffle night and everyone joins in and sings with them. Were you trying to reclaim rock and roll for England? So, you know, you have calypso people coming in, and then you’ve got people playing traditional English folk music, who previously couldn’t get arrested. When your kids are learning to play guitar at 15, 16, 17, our kids are already in Hamburg. And I don’t think there was that equivalent in the United States. The book is a logical extension of his interest in protest and working-class culture, and is even more tirelessly researched and artfully told than a fan of Bragg’s musical storytelling has reason to expect. So they start writing their own songs. It’s the ramifications of that moment. ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. And that then empowers them to go out and do gigs. I wanted it to be an engaging narrative. They’re all pioneers. BILLY BRAGG: Well, it was important. Skiffle is more akin to that than it is to the roots of punk and rock and roll. I think in the United States it was coming from a different place. The most historic load-out of any gig in the world, isn’t it? When the Beatles break the United States, there’s a whole gamut of road-hardened bands ready to come in right behind them. I learned so much about America when I first came to the United States and someone gave me a copy of that book. It’s not as if it’s a well-known story in the United Kingdom. And they were predominantly working-class youth as well, because middle-class youth tend to go to university, so their spending power is delayed. But now it actually seems very much in the lineage of Lonnie Donegan and skiffle players. But it was a way of defining themselves as different from their parent’s generation. We want authentic music.” And one of the reasons that skiffle runs out of steam is that there’s no new material. The book is very character-driven. And the Pistols were political in a sort of “meta” way.