Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is the first book to explore this phenomenon in depth – a meticulously researched and joyous account that explains how skiffle sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it.
It’s a story of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy Boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Billy traces how the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK and led directly to the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s.
Emerging from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s, skiffle was adopted by kids who growing up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. These were Britain’s first teenagers, looking for a music of their own in a pop culture dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC. Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of ‘Rock Island Line’ and soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.
Like punk rock that would flourish two decades later, skiffle was a do-it-yourself music. All you needed were three guitar chords and you could form a group, with mates playing tea-chest bass and washboard as a rhythm section. (Goodreads)
A few weeks before seeing Roots, Radicals, and Rockers on NetGalley, I was having a conversation with my mom and dad, one of those random ones you have, this one sparked by an advert on Sunday morning television selling Lonnie Donegan’s greatest hits. Their comment was, how many hits did he have? Children of the 50’s and teenagers in the 60’s their memory of him seemed to revolve around one or two comedy songs like Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight and My Old Man’s a Dustman. One google search later, it became clear there was much more to his music than that. Next thing you know I’ve a skiffle playlist on Spotify and I’m requesting copy of a book which has opened my eyes to a period in British music I knew nothing about, embarrassingly so for a woman who claims to love music.
As the Goodreads summary states, this book is incredibly well researched and detailed, taking you back to the America roots of what became a very British type of music and led the way for the British Invasion of America in the 60s. Some of this America music I was very familiar with, artists like Lead Belly, well at least their music. I knew little if anything of their lives or the world in which they were creating music. How it made it’s way to the UK was through a small group of people who were pursing an ideal for want of a better word, known as “trad jazz”. Skiffle was an offshoot of this, played inbetween sets to keep the audience entertained at gigs.
What makes skiffle so different from what came before is that it the birth of guitar-based music in the UK and it ties in perfectly with the birth of the teenager, who after the restrictions of post-war Britain, finally find themselves with money in their pockets to spend and a desire to break with the formality of their parents generation. They are looking for a way to express themselves and enjoy themselves and through skiffle they found a way. In the states, it is mirrored by the rise of rockabilly, the king of which was Elvis Presley.
The King of Skiffle for us, was a young man from Glasgow who became a chart hit almost by accident. Reading about his rise to fame, and how much of a fluke it was, was fascinating. What was also interesting to me was how he didn’t write his own music (at least in the beginning) but created a British sounds from what I consider American legends (can you say Woodie Guthrie?). And how much of a craze that sound became.
This is the best part of the story I thought, which didn’t focus too much on Dunegan’s life but looked instead at the impact he had on music in general (as well as other bands and artists which followed him). For a short period in time (just two years of ’57 and ’58) it seems that every young man and quite a few young women picked up guitars and learnt to play three chords, enough to throw out a tune and express themselves.
Among these young men were three that would change the music world as we knew it: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. And this is where the story ends, with a musical phenomenon that came from nowhere (seemingly), inspired a generation of musicians, and changed and transformed itself into music that influences what we hear today. It’s a pretty inspirational story and one that shows the power of youth when they chose to use it to change the world.
I have to say that the number of artists named and the number of musical references (magazines, venues etc.) was a bit overwhelming at times, as was trying to keep an eye on the timeline as the book tended to bop back and forth. I felt guilty in a way that I knew I wouldn’t remember everything I had read but my husband, who is a much bigger music fan than me and also read the book, didn’t have this problem and found it completely fascinating.
What both of us thought made this book stand out was the passion with which it was written and the love Billy Bragg has for his subject matter. This wasn’t just well researched, it was well written and, to me, it felt like it was written from the heart by a man who knows the music and has been influenced it by it himself. This won’t be a read for everyone but for those who love British music, folk and rock, I would say it’s one you should pick up. Like it a lot!
Note: I received a copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.