Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017
Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.
But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.
I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.
The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.
When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.
Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.
Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!
Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.
The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.
The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.
It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.
Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.
Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software. He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.
If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.
This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.
Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!
Waiting For Buddy Guy by Alan Harper, University of Illinois Press, 2016
Let’s start with a quiz.
1. Which album do you prefer?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
2. Which is the more representative blues album?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
The first question is relatively easy. You own both of these albums. You prefer one to the other.
The second question seems easy. One of these albums is closer to the ‘real’ sound of the blues than the other. Of course, this is where it gets tricky.
The obvious answer is that, in 1965, Paul Butterfield was better placed to present a more authentic blues record. He was, as the first track on the album asserts, ‘born in Chicago’. He came up in the West Side clubs, learning to play harmonica from legendary harp men like Little Walter. And, I hear you ask, didn’t the band include Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, otherwise known as Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section? Yes, it did. So it’s the real deal, isn’t it? The Blues Breakers album, on the other hand, might be a great record but it’s really just talented English white kids trying to sound like Chicago bluesmen. Right?
Yes, but that could describe the Butterfield record too. Elvin Bishop (yup, the guy who fooled around and fell in love), Mike Bloomfield, and Paul himself were blues-obsessed white kids too, just like Eric Clapton. So the argument becomes not only one of authenticity but also of race. That’s not to say it’s the weary question of whether or not ‘a white man can sing the blues’ but rather one about the nature of genre, its sources and its definition.
So let’s throw another log on the equation. Those two albums appeared within six months of each other in the mid 1960s. Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells was released at about the same time. Surely this knocks it out of Wrigley Field. Bloomfield and Clapton are great blues players but compared to Buddy Guy? Butterfield is one of the great harp players but, senator, he’s no Junior Wells. Case closed then. Well, maybe. Hoodoo Man Blues departs, quite dramatically at points, from the electric ‘country’ style associated with Muddy Waters, Wolf, and others. Listen to the first track, Snatch It Back and Hold It. It sounds a lot more like Papa’s got a Brand New Bag than Two Trains Running. Look over the track list. There’s a Kenny Burrell song on there! It’s a sophisticated and beautiful record but is it the blues? The ‘real’ blues?
This trapezoidal question is something of a thread in Alan Harper’s deceptively straightforward memoir, Waiting for Buddy Guy. For the record, I prefer the Butterfield album. Harper opts for Mayall. Feel free to add your pick and why in the comments section. I have no idea which one is a better ‘blues’ album and with Junior Wells in the mix I have even less idea, especially after reading Harper’s take on it. Fear not though, he provides an answer of sorts on the last page of the book. More on that later.
In 1979, Alan Harper did something we all wish we had done at some point in our lives. He went there. The ‘there’ in this case was Chicago and for a blues fan from England, it was exactly where he needed to be. He got to the Windy City just in time. It’s true that 20 years earlier, in 1959, he would have seen the original Chess stars at the height of their powers. Even 1969 would have been pretty good, particularly if Hound Dog Taylor was in town. But compared to 1993, when I stopped by to find one or two tired bands cranking out Hoochie Coochie Man, 1979 sounds pretty good. He hung out, went to Sunnyland Slim’s birthday party, went broke, and went home. He returned in 1982 and did the interviews that make up the bulk of this book.
The story functions as a night tour of the Chicago blues world as it stood in the early 80s. The title is a wry reference to the Checkerboard Lounge, a blues venue owned by Buddy Guy himself. The guitarist draws in punters by putting his name on the bill but almost never actually gets up to play. Alan Harper spends most of the book popping in, ordering a drink, and, yes, waiting for Buddy Guy.
While he waits, he comes across other creatures of the night world. He gets Johnny Littlejohn to sign an LP, interviews Carey Bell and his son, guitarist Lurrie. He tries to interview Junior Wells, who won’t comply unless he gets 10% of the action. There is an evening on the town with Louis Myers and a glimpse of the menacing Left Hand Frank. The early eighties was a difficult period for Chicago and its signature music. The city was slowly dying of Reaganomics while the musicians tried to work out how to move the blues forward.
The little known Lefty Dizz stuck with me after I finished reading the book. In a shiny red suit, carrying a guitar case, Lefty tells Harper that he has been drunk since he got back from Korea. Keeping in mind that this is 1982, that’s notable even among blues players. Lefty Dizz is a legend for those who saw him and a rumor for those who didn’t. His small batch of recordings are poorly produced and, apparently, don’t in any way represent his impact on stage. The one or two YouTube clips don’t give much away but it is said that the Rolling Stones sought him out when they visited in the 1970s and jammed with him for three nights. Old hands say that he was a better guitar player than Buddy Guy but blew every opportunity handed to him by drinking too much and being notoriously unreliable. He was once hired to play his own birthday party and missed the gig. At the risk of falling into yet another blues cliché trap, I sometimes think that guys like Lefty are the embodiment of this form. The jazz critic, Albert Murray, maintained that the music wasn’t the blues itself but an escape from that melancholy state. Lefty Dizz wasn’t playing the blues, he was playing in spite of the blues!
Harper doesn’t ask Lefty about his views on the great Butterfield/Mayall/Wells question but they do discuss the shift in the genre’s fanbase. No one wants to put a date on this but at some stage, the original audience of Chicago blues, the African American residents of the city, drifted away and were replaced by white university students. That’s a vast generalization but one echoed to this day by practitioners of the form. When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought a new audience to the blues in the 1980s, it was a predominantly white one. Young African-American music fans were somewhere else completely. There is a point in the story where Harper is driving through Chicago with Elisha Blue and Lurrie Bell listening to Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit, ‘The Message’. It’s a poignant moment. It wasn’t the novelty song it might have seemed at the time. It heralded an entirely new chapter in pop. Sadly, it had little to do with the styles played by the two men in the car.
So, back to the prickly issue of authenticity and race in the blues. Harper interviews Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, whose mission was to present ‘new’ blues bands in the post Chess era. His roster in those days was pretty impressive. Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks were all on his label. He kicked off in the 1970s with Hound Dog Taylor’s first album with the Houserockers, one of the great records of any genre. Iglauer, in 1982, felt as though his audience was a small group of white specialists. He couldn’t get his music played on any mainstream radio stations playing rock and roll for a largely white audience and had even less luck with RnB stations.
There is a suggestion, raised a couple of times in the book, that the southern, Jim Crow Mississippi sources of the early Chicago sound are simply a different listening experience for black audiences. Possibly this is why the black audiences that have stuck with blues apparently favour the smoother, more urban sounds that white devotees of the genre, like me for instance, find dull and overproduced. So where does that leave us? What’s authentic now? The rough hewn sound of Muddy’s earlier sides or the slick lines of ZZ Hill, an artist credited with bringing blues back to its original audiences in the early 80s? Harper admits that he had never heard of ZZ Hill in 1982.
The whole issue is linked to a much wider discussion of African American identity and its relationship to American identity in general. Elijah Wald addressed the question in relation to pre War styles in his 2005 book, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Harper’s book is less didactic but he doesn’t shy away from the problem. Instead of trying to provide an answer to an impossible question, he finishes with a Zen-like parable. Back in England, he meets an elderly potter and puts this dilemma to her:
You see an antique Chinese bowl for sale in one shop. It is beautifully crafted but no more so than an almost identical one made by a contemporary master in another shop. They are the same except that one is a thousand years old and therefore more ‘authentic’. Which one do you buy?
The elderly potter laughs and says;
‘You must choose the better pot.’
Teasers: Bruce Iglauer’s many brushes with blues death. A mouth watering list of all the gigs Alan Harper saw in the 1980s. Sigh. I’ve already spoiled the ending so I won’t tell you what happens when Buddy Guy finally turns up!
I’ll take Magic Sam’s West Side Soul album over them all! (That is Sam. He’s playing Earl Hooker’s guitar for some reason.)