Book review: Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg

Musician Billy Bragg.
Reuters

Musician Billy Bragg.

Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, by Billy Bragg, Faber, $45

On June 2, 1952, just a month after his 20th birthday, Tony Donegan walked out onto the stage at London's Royal Albert Hall armed with just his guitar and a passable knowledge of American folk songs.

His job was to fill a 10-minute gap between acts and entertain a 7000-strong audience who'd come to see "the greatest jazz event ever staged in Great Britain". He was the only solo performer in a lineup that included 18 bands, he wasn't – strictly – playing jazz, and he'd just that week decided to change his first name to Lonnie.

"OK, I was terrible," he later admitted. "Just an arrogant little strummer who didn't know any better. I shudder to think what my voice sounded like in a place that big, but the response was as if I'd just raised the Titanic single-handedly. It was enormous, gigantic! The audience loved me!"

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It's hard to gauge the impact of hearing new music in an unconnected age when, today, we're bombarded by free streaming, social media and mass marketing, but when Lonnie Donegan's homespun version of hillbilly folk and American blues landed in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, it ignited a teen revolution.

Called "skiffle" after a United States term for a dance party held to raise money to pay the rent, this early roots music craze that translated the music of the US underclass via the English DIY mentality (typical bands used a washboard for rhythm, a tea chest bass and home-built guitar) has been buried in the rock'n'roll mythology that swept through the 1950s – but its importance has been resurrected by UK musician and author Billy Bragg in a new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers.

It was always likely a political animal like Bragg, whose protesting and Left-Wing activism go hand-in-hand with his six-string, was going to write a book with this title – the only shock is that its subject is skiffle and not punk. What's not a shock is the clever way in which he mixes anecdotes, social history, the odd politically coloured authorial aside, and thorough research to make a damned fine argument for skiffle's reinstatement as a seminal moment in modern music's evolution.

Many musical genres burn short and bright and leave a lingering afterglow – think the UK's 90s rave scene an early 80s New York electronica – but few have been as influential and forgotten as skiffle. Bragg provides the links back across the Atlantic to its source songs from the likes of Lead Belly and forwards through the decades to musicians, such as Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart – even Elton John, who were influenced by skiffle's punkish freedom and novelty.

Alongside Bragg's amusing potted histories of 50s café culture, post-war jazz, the rise of geek-dom and duffel coats, there's no escaping Donegan's pivotal role in skiffle. While Elvis Presley was laying down his first tracks in Memphis, Donegan's version of Rock Island Line spent eight months in the UK top 20, became the first debut record to sell more than a million records and even made the top-10 in the US.

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For a grassroots movement it made one hell of an impact – and Bragg's adeptly argued case does well to set the record straight.

 - Stuff

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