How Skiffle Changed the World: A Conversation with Billy Bragg




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. 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. 

Bragg’s most recent project is Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. 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. 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. 

Bragg, who spoke by phone from the road, appears at the GRAMMY Museum to discuss the book on October 9.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: Let’s talk about the book a little bit. 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 it turns out it’s really the taproot of a huge amount of British rock and folk music. How widespread and influential was the skiffle moment?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, it was important. 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. 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 these kids, it was the first time they were really visible to mainstream culture. And skiffle was the medium that made them visible. But that 18 months between Donegan’s first hit and the end of the skiffle period is not when rock and roll comes in.

The music produced in that period is not as significant as what those same kids do when they’re five, six, seven years older. 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. When your kids are learning to play guitar at 15, 16, 17, our kids are already in Hamburg. They’re playing gigs. When the Beatles break the United States, there’s a whole gamut of road-hardened bands ready to come in right behind them. And that’s the real significance of skiffle.

What it does at the time is hampered by the fact that there is no existing youth culture for it to plug into. It had to create its own space. For instance, there isn’t a radio program for teenagers on the BBC when Donegan has his hit. The place you can hear the song is a radio show called Family Favourites, where people can request a song. So kids would tune in to that, hoping enough people had requested the song so they would hear it. 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. There are programs for children, and there are programs for adults, but there’s no space for teenagers in the middle. And then our first generation of British teenagers comes along, and their first radio program is called Saturday Skiffle Club.

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. And it all happened in the States, until the Beatles and Stones came over. Then suddenly the biggest, coolest bands in the world are British. From the Beatles and the Stones through punk, it felt like everything cool starting with “Love Me Do” was British. This book explains how this little island nation came to dominate the rock-and-roll scene.

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. [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. 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.

Whereas Donegan had no idea about that, he had no concept of that. And the other thing about skiffle is that it’s self-empowering. Skiffle is a rejection of Tin Pan Alley. It says, “No, that music is manufactured. We want authentic music.” And one of the reasons that skiffle runs out of steam is that there’s no new material. It’s all from the Library of Congress, or wherever they get their records.

The kids weren’t going to take material from Tin Pan Alley, because that was anathema to them. So they start writing their own songs. Lennon and McCartney are writing their own songs because skiffle has empowered them. And I don’t think there was that equivalent in the United States. There was no mass movement of school-aged boys playing three-chord blues songs in the United States. Skiffle was less like the punk scene and more like — do you know what a fidget spinner is?

Uh, vaguely, remind me …

It’s a thing that’s a current craze in the playgrounds. It’s a thing that you spin on your fingers. Skiffle is more akin to that than it is to the roots of punk and rock and roll. 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. 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. That’s how Lennon and McCartney started writing songs.

And also the lack of any considerations about musical appropriation, which was simply not an issue. In fact, it was the antithesis of that. They wanted to identify specifically with African-American music. 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. Which is a crazy kind of thing. But it was a way of defining themselves as different from their parent’s generation. And the guitar was a symbol of that. Because in British pop culture the guitar wasn’t a familiar instrument. It was something that was played by marginalized people: blues singers and calypso singers — both people of color — and singing cowboys. Those were the places where you heard the guitar in British culture.

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. 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. Obviously that’s different from the African-American experience, but the symbolism of picking up a guitar is this: we are different.

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. 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. All this came back to me when I was reading this book.

Well, that’s the other side of appropriation! 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. For African-American youth, I think an idiom like the blues was tied up with ideas of poverty and of bondage. It was their grandparents’ music. You don’t think that there was a generational thing in that music, but there certainly was. A lot of the hip young black kids in the ’50s and ’60s wanted to listen to bebop. That was where the edge was, it wasn’t in that old-timey stuff.

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. That was a huge thing for British kids and British musicians of the ’60s generation.

It was. And, of course, Chris Barber, whose band included Donegan when they played “Rock Island Line.” Barber played an absolutely key part in that. I mean a really big influence on British guitar players was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Sister Rosetta came over a few times in the ’50s and ’60s, and she played in the trad jazz clubs. By then there was a trad jazz circuit, and she played in that context. You know, people like Ken Colyer and Barber and those guys, they would back her up singing her gospel songs. 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.

It must have been shocking.

Right — and Bill Broonzy! Bill Broonzy was an incredible guitar player as well. You hear Pete Townshend talk about Big Bill Broonzy.

Yeah, I was pleased to see Pete in here. The range of people who ended up having some roots in skiffle is kind of amazing. 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. 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. He couldn’t remember the name of it. He said, “The trouble with the Beatles was, they thought Lonnie Donegan was Elvis.”

And then, of course, there’s the Rolling Stones. Mick said he’d been in skiffle groups. 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. You would expect to hear music played on guitars. What skiffle means is guitar music. Now, that could be anything. I mean, some of those guys are playing Charlie Christian. They were playing Django, some of those guys. Donegan’s guitar player, Nevil Skrimshire, learned by playing Django stuff. 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. All of a sudden, they bring their guitars to skiffle night and everyone joins in and sings with them. Skiffle opened a lot of doors for a lot of people on a lot of levels. It was revolutionary.

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.

What skiffle does is put the guitar in there. Beforehand, if folk music was being sung in a social context, it was often a cappella. And if it was being played, it was on a fiddle, or a concertina, or a piano. The guitar comes in and puts folk music in the orbit of young people. And people like Shirley Collins go to the archives and find songs and start singing them. And the great thing about skiffle was, when it happened, by pure coincidence, Peggy Seeger was in London. And Alan Lomax was in London. As well as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They were very influential, playing guitars and singing those old Appalachian folk songs, which are fundamentally British folk songs.

It’s the crossroads, really, of British folk music and African-American roots music. That’s our crossroads. You have one crossroads, which is kind of R&B and country. 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.

Even somebody like Richard Thompson, who seems very far from this, is rooted in skiffle. I think his first band was a Shadows tribute band. He wanted to be Hank Marvin.

They all wanted to be Hank Marvin back then. Hank was king. You know, before the Beatles, Hank was king.

Right, there weren’t that many role models if you were a British teenager in the early ’60s. That would be your guy. And you’d pick up a Strat, probably.

If you could find one! That was the other thing, there weren’t any electric guitars in the United Kingdom. Skiffle is very much … it’s kind of like what they used to say in the war. 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. You know, it had to be acoustic guitars, because that’s all they had.

It’s a musical culture that comes out of austerity, and you sketch how there was a real contrast with the States. 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. 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.

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? Forget it! We’re gonna play this shit ourselves.” It’s a reaction against the scarcity of music that they felt belonged to them. They have no alternative but to start making it themselves. And that then empowers them to go out and do gigs.

And young women also, they’re identifying themselves by their culture, which is based around going to the coffee bars, the espresso bars. They aren’t looking to the United States for their culture, they’re looking to Paris and Rome. This is a sophisticated culture for young women, their way of saying that they’re different from their parents. 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. I think the young girls have as much of a role in making this scene as the young men with guitars do. If you play soccer you can impress your mates, if you play skiffle you can impress girls. I mean, shit.

So let me bring this back to your career a little bit. I first saw you in 1985 at the old 9:30 Club …

Oh, the good old 9:30 Club! The most historic load-out of any gig in the world, isn’t it? The load-out there is the alleyway John Wilkes Booth ran down after he assassinated Lincoln.

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 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. It was like Dylan, if he had started out electric, and the songs were written by Joe Strummer. I thought punk and early Dylan were your roots. But now it actually seems very much in the lineage of Lonnie Donegan and skiffle players. Were you conscious of that? Was that something you were trying for?

No, not at all, not at all. I would have said the link I was conscious of at the time was between the Clash and Woody Guthrie. 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. Woody was a better link for me than Dylan.

Right. 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.

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. 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. Was that conscious? Were you trying to reclaim rock and roll for England?

I wouldn’t say for England, but I was certainly trying to keep alive the English idea of punk. As opposed to the American idea. You know, the idea that it had to be about something. 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. So, in that sense, content was second to style again, and I was against that, and I was trying to put content above style. That’s what I was most conscious of. And the way I chose to assert that was through a bit of punk and a bit of Woody. You know, Woody to do the solo thing, and punk to do the cranked-up thing.

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 the Pistols were political in a sort of “meta” way.

They were socio-political, in a way that even the Ramones weren’t, really. Even the Ramones didn’t have that political edge to them. Culturally, what was happening in my country at the time, push was coming to shove. There was a fascist party, the National Front. Rock Against Racism, these kinds of things, they all fed into what people were angry about. I think in the United States it was coming from a different place. American punk was rejectionist, but it wasn’t rejecting the system. It was rejecting the musical mores of the time.

There’s one other thing that strikes me about the book. You’re known as an eloquent songwriter, and your between-song banter is very effective — you’re a great storyteller. But this book doesn’t read like it was written by a rock musician on holiday. It reads like a real social history. I wonder, was it difficult for you to write a real historical study on a very complicated subject like this?

Well, what I didn’t want it to be is academic. That was my main thing. I wanted it to be an engaging narrative. If you put out a record without a narrative, you’re not really going to connect with people. So narrative has become very, very important to me. And I tried to make the book engaging without making it just a straight, linear story — this happened and this happened, you know. I wanted to put skiffle in the context of other things that were going on in our country. This is more of a social history than just a musical story.

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. But is it really the same muscle as writing a narrative song?

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. And I read a lot of books about music. I don’t read a huge amount of fiction, but I read a lot of nonfiction. 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.

The book is very character-driven. It could have been a significantly shorter book if you hadn’t filled in the characters. But you really give us a lot of detail about what motivated these people — the Colyer brothers, Lonnie Donegan, and so on.

Well, I think they’re absolutely crucial figures. They’re all pioneers. The implications of what they were doing weren’t exactly clear to them at the time. But now we have hindsight. Ken Colyer’s story would make a great biopic — you know, going down to New Orleans and getting arrested and all that stuff.

Yeah, I didn’t know any of that.

No, most people don’t! It’s not as if it’s a well-known story in the United Kingdom. People know skiffle, they know Donegan, but they don’t really understand the context. We take it for granted that British kids always played guitars and wrote songs — they didn’t! 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?

Yeah, I’ve certainly read a lot of Christopher Hill, and Hobsbawm’s The Short Twentieth Century, that kind of stuff. I’m trying to pick up on what’s going on. I’m doing a gig tonight based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I learned so much about America when I first came to the United States and someone gave me a copy of that book. Those kinds of books you return to again and again, because they’re so important.

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.

Yeah, the Diggers and all that! For a lot of people, that’s the first time they heard about that.

As you lay out in your book, we wouldn’t have had the Beatles, the Stones, T. Rex, Bert Jansch, Mott the Hoople, the Who, punk rock, and so on without skiffle. But skiffle itself — there’s not a lot of range to it. It’s all the same 20 songs, played pretty much the same way. It’s effective, but not a polymathic music.

But what you have to understand with skiffle is that they were the very first. The very fact that they stood there and played was revolutionary. 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.

It’s the ramifications of that moment. The people who stood up then went on to do world-changing things. Even though most of them dismiss skiffle as juvenilia, it was a key moment, and it deserves to have a light shone on it. It’s still within living memory — those people are still around, but they’ll soon be gone. 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. That generation deserves to have their story told. It’s a revolutionary story because of what they went on to do.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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