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In the history of 1950s subcultures, British youth divided into factions. There were the modern jazz kids, the trad jazz kids, the rock and roll teenagers and the skiffle craze. Coffee bars were a meeting place for all the types of youth and the coolest ones were said to be in Soho, London.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Skiffle is a type of folk music with jazz, blues and country influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments such as the washboard, tea chest bass, kazoo, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, comb and paper, and so forth, as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo. Skiffle and jug band music are closely related. Skiffle was particularly popular in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

Skiffle first became popular in the early 1900s in the United States, starting in New Orleans. The Oxford English Dictionary states that skiffle was a slang term for "rent party."

Originally, skiffle groups were referred to as spasm bands. By the 1920s and 1930s, a form of skiffle was being played in Louisville and Memphis. Skiffle's roots are also found in the jazz bands of the 1940s and 1950s. The informal, humorous style of skiffle made it twice a precursor of rock and roll, first in the United States in the early years and again in Great Britain in more recent times

The first use of the name on records was in 1925 by the otherwise unknown Jimmy O'Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. In 1948 Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys, led by barrelhouse piano player and journalist Burley, brought together New Orleans bassist Pops Foster, and guitar-playing brothers Brownie and Stick McGhee.

Revival in the United Kingdom

Skiffle was a novelty or happenstance musical form in the United States, in the 1920s through the 1940s. It had largely faded from view when, in the late 1950s, skiffle was reborn as a major musical movement in the United Kingdom. Skiffle was the British equivalent of rockabilly, a new form of music, loud and fast, with a direct communication between the band and the audience. Like rockabilly, British skiffle provided new opportunities for the more adventurous professional musicians.

Lonnie Donegan, the father of British skiffle, had become a professional musician in 1953, and joined the Trad jazz band of Ken Colyer. Between sets, Donegan would entertain the crowd with folk and blues, backed by bass and washboard. Colyer termed it skiffle, and soon it was more popular than the jazz that was being played. When trombonist Chris Barber left to form his own band in 1954, he took Donegan with him, and featured him on the New Orleans Joys LP, recorded in July 1954. Thanks in large part to Donegan’s raucous cover versions of the songs "Rock Island Line" and "John Henry", the ten-inch LP sold an unprecedented 50,000 copies. With skiffle getting airplay, Decca put out "Rock Island Line" as a single in 1956. It spent an astonishing eight months in the Top 20, peaking at #6 (and #8 in the U.S., selling over a million copies worldwide). Donegan appeared on The Perry Como Show in America, alongside Ronald Reagan).

Having been paid just a £50 session fee for the song, however, Donegan quickly signed with the young Pye-Nixa label, and rushed out "Lost John", which hit #2 in June 1956, and was the start of a series of UK hits – 34 of them - which lasted until 1962.

While skiffle is often credited only as a simple forerunner to British rock and roll, a lot of the early skiffle was played by skilled trad jazz musicians. The Vipers Skiffle Group and Chas McDevitt & Nancy Whiskey were examples of this. The Vipers came to prominence around the same time Lonnie Donegan left the Chris Barber Jazz Band to start his lifetime of skiffle.

The Vipers held a residency at London's The 2i's Coffee Bar and during this time musicians such as Tommy Steele, Jet Harris, Bruce Welch and Hank Marvin passed through the line-up. They had, however, a big problem: keeping their material away from Donegan. After Donegan had gained higher chart placings with the Vipers' first two hits, there was no love lost between them. (The Vipers' original version of "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O" was produced by George Martin, and Donegan's version by Joe Meek.)

The Vipers, however, turned the tables once on Donegan. Donegan made the mistake of performing "Cumberland Gap" on live television, transmitted from a ballroom in Kilburn before he had recorded it. The Vipers went straight into the studio and got their version released before his, costing Donegan's record company 100,000 sales, although Donegan's version when released did eventually reach #1 on the UK chart remaining there for five weeks. By the end of 1957 however, the Vipers were in decline, while Donegan would go on to be acknowledged as "The King of Skiffle".

Chas McDevitt, with Nancy Whiskey on vocals, had a world wide hit with "Freight Train". In July 1957, six years before The Beatles, McDevitt appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the same day as the Everly Brothers first performed Bye Bye Love. The show was seen by an estimated audience of 45,000,000 people. This success was to take them on tour with acts such as Slim Whitman and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. They also replaced Jerry Lee Lewis on his ill-fated 1958 tour of the UK.

As the British rock and roll scene was starting to take off, first with Tommy Steele then Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard and The Drifters (later renamed The Shadows), Donegan was still strumming on, oblivious to the fact that the Skiffle craze had long since gone. In the early 60s, Donegan described The Beatles' first records as old-fashioned, archaic rock and roll that had stopped his cash flow.

It was the popularity of simple skiffle music that opened young Britons' eyes to the idea that they could play music and have hit records. Several famous groups began as skiffle groups:

The explosion of British musical talent in the mid-1960s, called in the USA the British Invasion, can be partly attributed to the skiffle craze several years earlier. However skiffle had little direct impact in the United States beyond Donegan's hits, but some bands imitated British accents. Only some would go as far as the Strapping Fieldhands and actually exhibit their skiffle roots (even going so far as to have a song named "Lonnie Donegan's Mum's Tea Chest").

In the 1984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the fictitious rock group Spinal Tap had its beginnings in skiffle, as "The Lovely Lads."


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Skiffle" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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