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How “Skiffle” changed the world

July 17, 2017

A new book by Punker-turned-Folkie musician, Billy Bragg: He writes a ” thorough, compelling survey of a transitional genre that burned briefly but brightly in the UK in the latter ’50s.”

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World

Billy Bragg. Faber & Faber, $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-571-32774-4

In his first book, musician, left-wing activist, and sonic archivist Bragg has crafted a remarkable history of skiffle, a particularly British music genre. Initiated by amateur players obsessed with the blues, jazz, and folk, skiffle lured teenagers obsessed with all things American and eager to dance away post-WWII conformity and deprivation.

Lonnie Donegan recorded Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” in 1954, ushering in the skiffle element in British post-WW II music.

Bragg has dedicated his volume not to Donnie Lonegan – the king of skiffle, but to “every kid who ever picked up a guitar after hearing Donnie Lonegan.”

With a DIY ethos and three-chord tunes, skiffle inspired a generation of British lads to pick up guitars, including among them Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart and a young extraterrestrial who would later take the name “David Bowie.”

Roughly a cross between folk and R&B, skiffle quickly succumbed to the other two genres and faded from the charts, even as its former disciples led the British Invasion. Bragg impresses throughout with engaging prose and painstaking research.

He further enlivens the text with personal insights and witty asides that give the material a unique cast few professional writers would dare. The introduction of dozens of new figures in the last third of the book diffuses the narrative but that’s a minor demerit to an accomplished work. Ending with a flourish, Bragg convincingly argues for the emotional connection between skiffle and punk rock, something Bragg would know about better than most.

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