Thursday, February 09, 2006

Skiffle, piffle

My friend Keith Woods, founder and editor of 'Tales From the Woods', is single handedly trying to revive an almost forgotten form of 50s music - skiffle. He recently organised a gig featuring a number of original exponents of this archaic musical form (plus a few, such as Vince Eager and Wee Willie Harris) who weren't associated with skiffle at all at the time) and is planning another one soon. By all accounts the event was enjoyed by all who attended, although I couldn't make it myself. But, like ska, the origin of which was recently explored on 'Balderdash and Piffle' on BBC2, the origins of the word skiffle are obscure. When the first 'skiffle' record was recorded in 1954 (at almost exactly the same time as Elvis recorded his first sides for Sun) by Chris Barber's band, the word was apparently used by Lonnie Donegan, its greatest exponent, to describe what they were playing. According to Billy Bragg in an article in the Guardian a couple of years ago, the origin of the word goes back to the US jazz scene of the 1940s, or possible even earlier. Here's what he said:
'Over the years, fans and academics have haggled over skiffle's origins. Like much of what was sacred to the British trad-jazz scene, it had its roots in the music of black America: music by artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly - a raw music blending jazz, blues and folk, in which the guitar predominates.
Determined to replicate this sound, British trad-jazz bands began downing their brass instruments and picking up acoustic guitars, double bass and, for rhythm, a washboard. Looking for a term to describe these interludes, they settled on "skiffle". The word had been used in jazz circles in 1940s America to describe bands at "rent parties", held by tenants to raise money to pay the landlord. The sound reflected their ad-hoc nature. What the bands lacked in finesse they made up for in enthusiasm. Occasionally they made records. They called themselves "spasm" or "skiffle" bands, but they were always novelty acts. There was no "skiffle scene" in the US.'

Skiffle was certainly influential in the UK in the innocent era of the 50s, when there was little access to the 'real thing' - American blues and folk music. But sadly, most of it was utter crap. Apart from a few tracks by Lonnie Donegan (I particularly liked the exciting climax of 'Bring a little water Sylvie') and Nancy Whiskey's haunting voice on 'Freight train' and its B side 'The cotton song' I can't think of a single skiffle record that has stood the test of time. Skiffle was a passing fad - popular in the UK only because the teenagers of the time knew no better. Like nearly all British pop music of the time it was second rate, derivative and uninspired. I'm glad that some of the old skiffle musicians are getting a gig or two thanks to Keith's efforts and enthusiasm. But I'm afraid it doesn't make the music any better.


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