For print, this piece would have all the hyperlinks shortened, but that’s a time-consuming business and I’m letting it slide a bit until somebody shows some interest …
Haven’t had so much good ol’ 1950s fun since Carl Perkins and the boys sat me bolt upright with the garage cut of Pink Pedalpushers.
My birthday CD was That’s What Happens, a skiffle-era tribute by Chas’n’Dave. And it led me to open a box set I bought a while ago, Skiffle From Britain To Broadway– 100 tracks on four discs, for about £15, from archive specialists JSP Records of London, which is the sort of bargain that keeps me popping into record shops. See a full track-list at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/skiffle-from-britain-to-broadway/26520687?ean=788065717322/
The box notes say: “A sincere but muddled amalgam of American genres like Blues, Country and Bluegrass, Skiffle’s energy and freshness came as a revelation to the austere Britain of the 1950s.”
I was born in 1950 and skiffle got into my comics and into the games we played. I remember a friend of my mum’s helping a group of us to set up a band which lasted for an afternoon, complete with tea-chest bass. I don’t recall hearing much of the music, at the time, apart from Lonnie Donegan, but what with everybody’s mums’ and dads’ records and the odd trendy music teacher, most of the songs in this box set were part of the repertoire on the rugby coaches in which I toured small-town Devon in the 1960s.
It is surprising, in retrospect, how much of the American songbook got covered skiffle-style. House Of The Rising Sun was a standard, years before The Animals picked it up. City Ramblers Skiffle beat Johnny Cash to Delia’s Gone by 40 years. Route 66 got covered as soon as Chuck Berry released it. Everybody did Railroad Bill – high point of the new Chas’n’Dave album.
The Cockney geezers are nowadays getting a lot of respect from other musicians and That’s What Happens is an enjoyable bit of work but I expect they would agree they would have had a run for their money in the 1950s. A lot of the skifflers came out of jazz –led by Chris Barber and Ken Colyer, Alexis Korner and Lonnie Donegan – and it shows in their playing.
Donegan was very good but he and his main rivals did end up competing with each other to go faster and faster with the same sound, to some extent, and that sound is beginning to pall a bit by the end of CD1. Donegan’s hits are well worth having on their own but you could think that was enough skiffle by the time you were through them. However, the rest of the box set is a welcome reminder that it was quite a varied scene, fed from Glasgow and Bristol and Copenhagen as well as London. The Avon Cities Skiffle tended to Western Swing. Les Hobeaux, from Regent Street Polytechnic, were folkier but had the unusual edge, for Britain at the time, of a black baritone singer. Johnny Duncan & The Bluegrass Boys were what they said they were and their Footprints In The Snow is a high-and-lonesome jam worthy of Bill Monroe …
There was raucous pub rock and gospel. And there was a certain amount of over-sweetened folk. But there are at least a dozen tracks besides Donegan’s which would stand as street-credible singles today.
A couple more examples …
I Don’t Know by Ray Bush and the Avon Cities Skiffle, who formed in 1949:
Green Corn by the same outfit:
Rockabilly Baby by Johnny Duncan & The Bluegrass Boys:
Try also for Hand Me Down My Walking Cane by 2.19 Skiffle and Don’t You Rock Me Daddyo by Station Skiffle, who allegedly, and it sounds right, found their sound rehearsing in the London Underground.
Missing from the collection, as far as I can see, is one of Lonnie Donegan’s historically most interesting hits, Battle Of New Orleans, which was recently discussed elsewhere in this blog, at
Included, though, is Puttin’ On The Style, which I chose for further investigation because the words struck me as a clever summary of the teenage condition – “Puttin on the agony, puttin on the style”. I take putting on the agony to mean piling on the agony, as the Brits would most usually say.
It was a surprise to discover that the song was first a hit in the USA in 1925, for one of country music’s first recording stars, Vernon Dalhart, and a recognisable version of the lyrics, including the key line, has been traced back to 1875.
You can buy an 18-track Vernon Dalhart collection for £7.49 and you can sample his Puttin’ On The Style for free at
More in this series at