wed 24/07/2024

Billy Bragg: Roots, Radicals and Rockers review - riffing on skiffle, and more besides | reviews, news & interviews

Billy Bragg: Roots, Radicals and Rockers review - riffing on skiffle, and more besides

Billy Bragg: Roots, Radicals and Rockers review - riffing on skiffle, and more besides

From the Mississippi to the Mersey: a brief history of revolt in music

Singer, songwriter and social activist: Billy BraggPete Dunwell

Wow! An unconventional opening for a book review maybe, but ‘“wow!” nonetheless.

Subtitled "How Skiffle Changed the World", this is an impressive work of popular scholarship by the singer, songwriter and social activist whose 40-year (and counting) career has embraced folk, punk, rock and Americana, and various combinations of those genres. It has also seen him anointed as an heir to Woody Guthrie, the late great journalist and song-maker, the Dust Bowl balladeer who, more than half a century ago, wrote a song about a little-known racketeer landlord whose mercenary tactics would lay the foundations of an empire that would enable his son to become president of the United States.

How long Trump remains at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains to be seen. I’m writing this review from Greenwich Village, New York, where Republicans are thin on the ground at the best of times, which these aren’t. Moreover most of the music which fuelled the revolution Bragg is writing about echoed through these hallowed streets in the 1950s and 1960s in one form or another, and in other centres of the post-War urban folk revival. Alan and John Lomax, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger and his half-sister Peggy are among the figures from the revival who came to Britain, partly in flight from Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt for so-called communists – Peggy of course stayed, marrying Ewan MacColl.

Billy BraggBoth of them were sniffy about skiffle, as Peggy Seeger’s 1957 EP The Origins of Skiffle made clear – her versions of “Freight Train”, “Cumberland Gap” and “Sail Away, Lady”, the latter the basis for “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” – were very different from the chirpy, jolly covers that inspired so many British teenagers to pick up a guitar, and Seeger quickly upbraided Lonnie Donegan for not giving due credit to the songs’ creators. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the role that skiffle played in post-War Britain, emerging from trad jazz – a schism every bit as significant, in its way, as the moment Bob Dylan went electric – and introducing young listeners to the blues, building the bridge which, in 1964, would allow the Beatles to cross the Atlantic and take America by storm.

Whatever their musical interests (or whether they have any at all), most people above a certain age remember Donegan and most recall that, in July 1957, the Quarrymen Skiffle Group played a set of Donegan hits at the St Peter’s, Woolton summer fete. Afterwards its leader, John Lennon, was introduced to a younger kid named Paul McCartney, who was actually able to play Eddie Cochran’s more sophisticated “Twenty Flight Rock”.

The rest, as they say, is history, and the history of British popular music can be viewed as pre-Beatles and post-Beatles. Bragg brings the post-Beatles era briefly up-to-date in a neat concluding chapter: Van Morrison, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Bee Gees all owe much to skiffle, as do the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and all the others who played London’s 100 Club in 1976 – punk, like skiffle, “set out to democratise popular culture”.

Roots, Radicals and Rockers is an admirably detailed and contextualised pre-Beatles history and it is long overdue. Bragg’s frame of historical reference is wide indeed: much of the early story pivots on Ken Colyer, trumpeter and devotee of New Orleans jazz who played with many bands but most significantly, as far as this particular story is concerned, with Chris Barber. Donegan’s appearances with the Barber band were the launch pad for the skiffle craze, “Rock Island Line” their first transatlantic hit. Bragg traces the history of that song from an early sort-of jingle for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad’s new line through its various iterations: Donegan’s 1954 hit version was probably learned from Lead Belly’s 1947 New York recording, though the ex-con, recorded by John and Alan Lomax at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison Farm, laid down several others.

Bragg tells a complicated and far-from-linear history – a chronology would have been a useful addition: perhaps for the paperback? – which takes off in the later 1950s, as the baby-boomers approach their early teens. He’s good on fashion, and reminds us that the “hit parade”, and BBC Light Radio programmes such as Housewives’ Choice, featured jazz and skiffle cheek-by-jowl with British crooners such as Dickie Valentine and David Whitfield; that it was Jimmy Young (“from the wild west of Gloucestershire”) who sang the title song to the James Stewart western The Man from Laramie. And he reminds us how politics and race impacted on the British music scene, socially and culturally, as they did in the United States.

Skiffle took some into rock, but others directly into folk: Ballads and Blues, a 1953 BBC Radio series, demonstrated the shared preoccupations of British and American music, laying the foundations for The Radio Ballads and much more besides.

It was all part of “youth in revolt” in a country that, as George Orwell wrote, resembled “a family with the wrong members in control”. The sad thing is that despite that revolt – and the progress made in the glad, confident morning of the 1960s – those “wrong members” are still in control and the Tories hope to entrench that with a return to grammar schools. Bragg, a working-class kid from Barking, failed his 11-Plus and was thus denied a place at university. His life and work since, not least this book, speak volumes.

       Liz Thomson's website

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