Styles & Forms | Skiffle | Pop
A cheap acoustic guitar, a washboard, some thimbles, a tea chest, a broom handle and a length of string, together with a modicum of musical talent – these were all that was required for skiffle, an amalgam of American jazz, blues and folk that caught on with Britain’s largely cash-strapped teenagers in 1956 and 1957, temporarily challenging the supremacy of rock’n’roll.
Rhythmic and decidedly upbeat, skiffle was a white, Anglicized extension of the black music that, drawing on blues, jazz, rag and traditional country, had originated in America during the late nineteenth century and been performed all over the South during the 1920s and 1930s by what were variously known as skiffle, skuffle, spasm, hamfat, washboard, jook and, most popularly, jug bands. These makeshift outfits usually consisted of a fiddle, a banjo, a kazoo and, sometimes, a guitar, mandolin and/or harmonica, together with percussive, rhythmic household items such as spoons, tin cans and washboards (upon which thimbled fingers and thumbs would be run up and down). Nevertheless, whereas the bass line was provided by at least one band member blowing into or across the top of a jug, when the 1950s skiffle revival took place in England, said jug was supplanted by a crude imitation of an upright bass in the form of a broom handle poked through a hole in an upturned tea chest, with a cord attached between the two.
A Raw, American-Accented Style
The king of British skiffle – and the only one of the artists to earn international recognition – was Lonnie Donegan, who introduced the music to concert audiences during the early 1950s when he performed his versions of blues, country and folk standards in between sets by Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. Playing banjo or acoustic guitar while backed by an upright bass and drums, Donegan delivered the vocals in a raw, American-accented style that quickly made him more popular than the star attraction. When Colyer’s outfit evolved into Chris Barber’s Jazz Band in 1954, Donegan took the lead on what turned out to be a seminal track on the group’s debut album, New Orleans Joys. Featuring Barber on bass and Beryl Bryden on washboard, Lonnie Donegan’s rendition of the old Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter blues standard, ‘Rock Island Line’, was released as a single and sold a staggering three million copies, spending 22 weeks on the UK charts, where it peaked at No. 8, while also making the American Top 10.
Still, although the sales figures were more than a little impressive, what made ‘Rock Island Line’ unique in the annals of British pop at that time was the fact that most of the people who bought the record were teenagers. Suddenly, like an oasis in a desert of staid formality, here was a raucous, bluesy, homegrown sound that not only caught the kids’ attention but also inspired them to form their own bands in an attempt to duplicate the Lonnie...
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