What is skiffle?

Skiffle is the name given to the first pop music in Britain that used guitars, the first DIY music movement to go national, the first rock craze, the soundtrack to the first teenage kicks. It was punk before punk, and rock before rock.

The list of musicians who started in skiffle is a list of greats – the Beatles, Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, Hank Marvin, Cliff Richard – but skiffle is a movement that was about the normal kids on everyday streets making music on a cheap guitar and household objects. It is about the thousands of people who learned music because they heard the rhythm and couldn’t help but join in.

It began in the 1950s with English trad jazz enthusiasts playing gigs in the home counties but dreaming of America; New Orleans, Railroads, Jailhouses and Chain Gangs. As the brass players in the jazz bands took a break mid-way through their gig, the string section would keep going playing the old and new folk songs from the States. Playing Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and songs that have never been written, they always just have been around.

As Elvis was recording Heartbreak Hotel, Lonnie Donnegan was recording Rock Island Line. It was released to ride the wave of publicity coming from Rock Around the Clock, but the homemade success of Lonnie’s recording led to more of the same. Other people were ready with their songs and a movement became a fashion which soon became yesterday’s news.

As everyone who has ever rocked out knows, you can rock so much better on electric guitars and with real drumkits. So the skifflers became rockers and skiffle eventually became Beat music, and skiffle became a novelty item.

Sadly, skiffle is now often a footnote in the history of British rock. But for those of us who love DIY music, who love American folk tunes, who love playing in a group without having to “be in a band” and “practice” and “be organised” – we’re still skiffling.


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