Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock

In addition to shepherding in the infancy of indigenous rock ‘n’ roll, Lonnie Donegan also paved the way for the next generation of UK rock humorists

Long devoid of their own popular music scene and laboring in the shadows of American styles since the beginning of the century, new British bands started to form in the late ’50s from a native fan base that had enthusiastically embraced rock ‘n’ roll since Bill Haley & the Comets had first touched their shores in 1956. This home-grown scene, however, was still largely eclipsed by the dominant American export market. “Old school” (i.e., the mid-50s) rock-rebels like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, cognizant of Brit-youths’ passion for the harder and more decadent strains of the genre, even moved to the UK at the end of the decade to capitalize on a scene that appeared to be increasingly pass√© back home.

The welcome mat for these US “had-beens” was reflected on the UK pop charts; at one point in 1958, 15 of the top 20 records on the UK charts were American. Soon, though, British counterparts emerged, and by the end of the decade, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, and Adam Faith had all established themselves as British representatives on the charts, alongside their American idols.

With these largely derivative acts, though, there was a sense that UK rock was still merely gestating in the womb of American parentage. One British act that stood apart from the copy-“cat” crowd, however, was Lonnie Donegan. Though his folk stylings reflected the American roots sources from which he had initially drawn, Donegan brought an indigenous British accent, humor, and style to his music that differentiated him from his contemporaries and foreshadowed the shape of rock to come. Almost a decade before the Beatles and their merry bands of invaders would put Britain center-stage and in the spotlight of the early ’60s rock renaissance, this working-class trailblazer would set that stage, giving birth to a national rock culture that has flourished — with distinction — in tandem with the US ever since.

With the release of Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” in 1955, Britain produced its first international pop star and its first piece of national rock ‘n’ roll. Recorded in a London studio just one week after Elvis laid down his first Sun session, “Rock Island Line” like “That’s All Right” was the product of a happy accident. The Chris Barber Jazz Band, with Donegan as a member, was attempting to record a full-length album of traditional jazz songs but lacked sufficient material. They decided to fill the vinyl gaps with some of the stripped-down folk-jazz songs they had been periodically performing in their live sets during a pub break. These additional songs, credited to Donegan, proved to be particularly popular amongst young UK listeners, ultimately making Donegan a star and the music style skiffle a national phenomenon.

Skiffle was neither an invention of Donegan’s nor of the British. It was a term and style used to describe the bare-boned American jazz acts that would play rent parties during the ’30s. It drew from a range of US “folk” styles, both black and white. By the time the genre had reached British shores, one could hear the sounds of jazz, blues, cajun, bluegrass, folk, and country. Filtered through British cultural influences, a music-hall comedy style was added, along with distinct working-class regional accents. Donegan became a practitioner when skiffle had been “yanked” from its moorings to become, what many assumed, a British musical form. Though little-known because it has become so associated with Donegan, “Rock Island Line” was actually a sped-up rendition of a Leadbelly original. It was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic for Donegan, residing on the British charts for 22 weeks.

Like Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll in the US, the success of Donegan and skiffle was a shock to the national senses. The indigenous popular music scene in the UK, until then, had been dominated by aging crooners playing lush music produced by orchestras. Moreover, Britain’s pervasive attitude was that music was something to be played by skilled musicians and controlled by an upper-class establishment. Forerunners of punk by 20 years, Donegan and the thousands of other skiffle acts that sprang up after “Rock Island Line” wrested control from the establishment, democratizing the industry in the process. The greatest recipients of Donegan’s success were the very people who facilitated it: British youth.

As in America during the mid-’50s, a generation gap had been growing in the UK. Its young people were frustrated by the rigid restrictions the parent generation imposed upon them, particularly in the musical fare they were spoon-fed. Skiffle, like punk, stripped music to the core. Its quirky combination of acoustic guitars, tea-chest bass, and washboard sent out a clear anyone-can-do-it signal, and as the skiffle explosion proved, anyone could and did. Among the kids drawn to its three-chord songs of fun and simplicity was John Lennon, who formed his own skiffle act, the Quarrymen, in 1957. Supporters of the band included two members of the Liverpool branch of the “Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Club”: Paul McCartney and George Harrison. For a nation’s youth that had looked so long to America for musical inspiration and instruction, skiffle offered a distinct British “accent” that would prove an important stepping stone in the development of more Anglo-centric popular music.

The ingredient that gave Donegan’s skiffle its Britishness was its distinct sense of humor. Whereas race had been the defining criteria in American music forms, within Britain, social class was key. Donegan, like most of the young skifflers, was solidly working class. A Glaswegian who had grown up poor in London’s “cockney” east end, Donegan wore his class identity as a badge of honor and held an antagonistic attitude against the refined establishment culture. For him, the music had to be raw and amateur, a reflection of the “folk”, a contrast to the elite. His way of saying “Roll Over Beethoven” was to exaggerate his cockney accent and sing about everyday topics. Skiffle may have been rooted in the American South, but Donegan brought the British streets into the music and, most significantly, a sense of celebratory humor with its roots in 19th-century British music-hall comedy.

One of Donegan’s biggest hits, “My Old Man’s a Dustman” (1960), had once been a music-hall standard. “Putting on the Style” (1957), similarly, was modeled on the traditional music hall “knees up” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)” (1957) had been a comic sing-a-long at boy scout camps for generations. The down-to-earth humor of these novelty numbers tapped into a working-class pride in Britain not witnessed since George Formby’s popularity two decades prior. Donegan’s cockney delivery, spirited performances, and comic gags thrilled young working-class audiences looking for something new, rhythmic, and exciting; it also inspired in them the feeling that, for the price of a cheap guitar, they, too, could hop aboard the skiffle train.

Inevitably, and as with rock ‘n’ roll States-side, skiffle had its detractors amongst vigilant establishment observers. In Britain, censorship could be powerfully effective because of the BBC’s monopolistic control over the airwaves. Donegan’s 1956 single, “Diggin’ My Potatoes”, ran afoul with the trigger-happy censors down at the Beep, who deemed its lyrics too suggestive for innocent ears. As with attempted censorship in the US, though, such containment cost in record sales was more than compensated for by the youth credibility and rebel status to be attained as a perceived public enemy of the establishment.

Suffering the fate of many a musical pioneer, Donegan did not get to enjoy the long-term fruits of his labors. Though he could boast 30 songs on the UK charts between 1956 and 1962, the emergence of home-grown rock would sound the death knell to Donegan’s pop-star career, as well as to the skiffle genre. The “King of Skiffle” soon became a footnote to articles about four young Liverpudlian mop-tops. Time has retrieved Donegan as beyond an afterthought, though. More a link in a long chain, he is now recognized as an important early connecting point, one that echoed the past but ushered in the future. His skiffle style, like rock ‘n’ roll, coalesced myriad music styles of the past, making something new in the process. Likewise, his working-class parochial humor spoke to his heritage, bringing hope, pride, and confidence to the nation’s youth.

Besides shepherding in the infancy of indigenous rock ‘n’ roll, Donegan also paved the way for the next generation of UK rock humorists, who were busy during his heyday creating spawning grounds in major metropolitan areas like London, Manchester, and Liverpool. A Brit-side school of subversive rock humorists was set to emerge from these awakenings, thrusting the national character permanently onto the rock ‘n’ roll landscape; in the process, a new explosion would occur, one that would witness UK rock humorists, for the first time, existing unapologetically alongside US ones in the future unfolding of the form.

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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.