Music of the people: Skiffle

Mitch Mitchell is back with another people’s music playlist. This time he’s introducing Skiffle.

Left to right: Lonnie Donegan, Bill Colyer, Ken Colyer, Chris Barber || (Photo courtesy of the Barber-Purser Archives)

In the 1950s, in Britain, alongside rock and roll, there was an extremely popular form of music known as ‘Skiffle’.

It was basically a rehash of American folk tunes, played by groups of young people often with little or no musical knowledge and played on makeshift instruments.

The term dates back to the early part of the 20th century as was invented by, usually, African Americans. They held what were called skiffle parties which were also known as ‘Rent Parties’. People would get together at someone’s home, play music and sing and raise money for that person to pay their rent.

The instrumentation was often one person with a guitar, several blowing into empty booze jugs of various sizes to obtain different notes, sometimes a banjo and the rhythm knocked out on a suitcase or cardboard box. These outfits were frequently known as ‘jug bands’.

In Britain, a young jazz enthusiast called Ken Colyer joined the merchant navy at the start of World War 2 with the express wish of getting to America, specifically New Orleans, in order to see first-hand the city’s musicians playing the music he loved.

Ken was a trumpeter and when his boat docked, he jumped ship and went off to Beale Street, Basin Street and all the addresses he had heard of. He sat in with some of the bands, who were astonished that a white guy from England had such a soulful way with his instrument.

Unfortunately, after a few weeks he was arrested and deported as an illegal alien. However, undeterred, he managed to bring back several records which were unavailable in Britain and set about forming a band.

Members of his band included Lonnie Donegan on banjo and Chris Barber on double bass. Both of them fell out with Colyer, who apparently was a hard taskmaster and quite a tough boss, and got together themselves playing music in pubs around Twickenham and Richmond.

In 1954, their following, which had become quite substantial, alerted the Decca record company and they were invited to make some recordings. One of the songs they cut was an old American folk tune called ‘The Rock Island Line’, which had been previously recorded by Huddie Leadbetter, known as Leadbelly. Leadbelly was in prison for murder when discovered by John Lomax who was travelling America recording folk music for posterity. So overwhelmed by Huddie’s talent that he persuaded the authorities to give him parole and got him into a recording studio.

Donegan’s record was released and it obviously struck a chord with record buyers as it became a number one hit in Britain and, unusually for those times, a top 10 hit in the USA. The band line-up was Donegan on guitar and vocals, Barber on bass, Dick Bishop on banjo and Beryl Bryden playing washboard.

The basic nature of the music meant that more or less anybody could have a go. As double basses were quite expensive, people adapted old tea chests (large wooden boxes equipped with a broom handle and a piece of string attached to the broom and the tea chest. Washboards were purloined from mothers’ kitchens, as were her sewing thimbles which made the percussive noise on said washboards. Providing one of the group played guitar and knew at least three chords, they were away.

Many people who achieved fame later began their careers in skiffle groups. Adam Faith, who was a later pop star rivaling Cliff Richard for popularity in the 1960s was a member of the Worried Men group. Johnny Kidd, who had a smash hit with ‘Shakin’ all over’ once belonged to The Five Nutters. And let’s not forget the Quarrymen who also later became quite successful as an outfit called The Beatles.

Donegan himself became known as The King of Skiffle and his records sold in shedloads.  This led to copyists who had varying degrees of record sales success. One band was The Vipers who had a couple of chart hits. The Vipers included amongst their number a guitarist/vocalist named Wally Whyton. People reading this of a certain age will remember him on children’s TV in the early 1960s with puppets, Pussy Cat Willum and Olly Beak, the owl.

Other successful skiffle bands included Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, featuring Nancy Whiskey and The Bob Cort Group who recorded the theme tune to BBC’s ‘6-5 Special’, the first television programme aimed at teenagers.

Donegan’s star burned brightly for a few more years, but although he continued to play his hit songs at live gigs, he dropped the word ‘skiffle’ from his band and found a new market reviving old cockney songs such as his massive hit record ‘My Old Man’s a dustman’.

Other members of the other groups drifted away too, some staying on in the music business as I have said and some going back into the routine workplace.

The main thing about skiffle music was that, like punk in 1976, it was a form that people found easy to play and have a try at and so, it really was music of the people.


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