The roots of skiffle as a musical genre and its influence on popular music is discussed in this book talk presented by singer and guitarist Billy Bragg at the Library of Congress in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C.
In his book, “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World,” Bragg examines the moment in history following World War II when British teens transformed the country’s pop music from a jazz-based musical form into the guitar-led sound that changed the world of music. The event is co-sponsored by the Library’s American Folklife Center and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.
From the Library of Congress website:
Billy Bragg talks about his book:
Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World
a book talk and signing by Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter and activist
“Skiffle” is a catchy name for a do-it-yourself music craze that swept Britain in the 1950s, primarily influenced by American jazz, blues, folk, and roots music. Like punk rock, which would flourish two decades later, Skiffle was homemade 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. Emerging from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s, skiffle was adopted by the first generation of British “teenagers”: working class kids who grew up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. Before skiffle, the pop culture was dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC. Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of “Rock Island Line” (a song first recorded as a field recording and then by Lead Belly for the American Folklife Center archive) and soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.
The story of skiffle is a tale of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthyite witch hunts. Skiffle is the main reason the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK, and in this sense led directly to both the UK folk scene and British rock and roll, including the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and David Bowie—not to mention Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, and the Watersons—all got their start playing skiffle.
Roots, Radicals and Rockers is the first book to explore the skiffle phenomenon in depth. Billy Bragg’s meticulously researched and joyous account shows how skiffle sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it. A book signing will follow the talk.
Billy Bragg is an English singer-songwriter and political activist. His music blends elements of folk, punk, and protest songs, with lyrics that mostly treat political or romantic themes. In addition to his own acclaimed recordings, many of his songs, such as “A New England,” “Between the Wars,” and “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” have been covered by others, including Kirsty MacColl, The Watchmen, and June Tabor. In the late 1990s, Billy Bragg and the band Wilco were asked to set some of Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics to music. The results were three albums known as The Mermaid Avenue Sessions, as well as the film documentary Man in the Sand, which made Billy Bragg an integral part of the Woody Guthrie story. Bragg’s most recent album is Shine a Light, recorded with Joe Henry. For the album, Bragg and Henry traveled across the U.S. by train, and recorded classic railroad songs in train stations along the way. The album features several songs, including “Rock Island Line,” which were integral to the skiffle movement, and which were originally known from field recordings in the American Folklife Center archive. Bragg has spent several years researching and writing about skiffle in this exciting new book.
This event is co-sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.