Skiffle and the English “Elvis”

In January 1956 Elvis Presley entered the recording studio to begin his official career as an RCA artist, laying down, among other tunes, his debut single for the major, “Heartbreak Hotel”. Within weeks, the song had climbed to number one on the national charts and the singer, through a series of headline-scooping television appearances, had shaken his way into the souls of adolescent America.

The same month, Britain welcomed to its own Top Ten — a performer who would become the UK’s “most successful and influential recording artist before the Beatles”, according to the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. Lonnie Donegan premiered, in the opening weeks of that significant year, with a song entitled “Rock Island Line”, the first of more than 30 hits over the next six years.

Lonnie Donegan brought none of the sexual thunder, nor paltry evidence of the predatory fireworks, and not a scant suggestion of the pelvic gyration that made Presley the biggest star on the planet within a year. But Lonnie triggered a quiet revolution which was, in its way, as significant as the cultural coup d’état that Elvis instigated under the shrewd direction of his svengali manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Donegan brought to English ears a music that had little of the raw vitality of rock ‘n’ roll, but blended folk and blues and jazz in a fashion that certainly prepared listeners on this side of the Atlantic for the onslaught of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, in the years that followed.

Lonnie’s music was called “skiffle”, a term borrowed, like Presley’s, from a black American tradition. But while Elvis had appropriated more recent rhythm & blues and entangled it with country, Donegan had gone further back, to a pre-war form associated with New Orleans and tailgate. In doing so, Donegan inspired a generation of British pop stars quite as much as Elvis did. Suffice it to say that without Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, it is highly unlikely that the greatest band of all would ever have emerged, because it was skiffle, rather than rock, that first inspired Lennon and McCartney to plot their musical adventure.

So what was skiffle and why on earth was a London guitarist, born Anthony Donegan in 1931, so crucial to its dissemination on these shores? On September 6th, 2003, a conference takes place, not insignificantly, in Liverpool, wherein the rise and decline of this musical style will be considered through academic papers, anecdotal reminiscences, and performances by live groups. Questions about the skiffle’s Anglo incarnation and Donegan’s role in it are certain to be on the agenda of “Here’s the Way We Play It”, a day-long event at the city’s Bluecoat Gallery.

Yet the answers are not so complicated. The British gigging scene after the Second World War featured a significant roster of jazz acts that tended to ignore more recent developments — swing, the big bands and bebop — and delve into those forms that evolved in the hothouse of Storyville in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Those very environs delivered Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong to a wider world. Bands led by Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttelton gave momentum to a form dubbed “revivalist jazz”, later “trad jazz”, which venerated an allegiance to authenticity. This was very much the way that folk and blues and rock instrumentalists would, too, hold such veneration; they cling to the notion that the only pure and honourable course for the serious music-maker is to sincerely replicate a roots version of your chosen genre.

Yet Colyer, a notable left wing politico, and Barber were not averse to letting a little fun creep into their evenings of quite earnest re-creation. Concert intervals would resurrect another one-time Negro tradition when the guitar, banjo and an array of improvised instruments — washboards, tea-chest basses and so on — would entertain the audience.

Donegan’s spot, featuring an eclectic array of tunes by Leadbelly, prison and railroad songs, mountain ballads, and folk rambles, soon became sufficiently popular to propel him to the front of the band and eventually into the spotlight as a solo performer. Skiffle, a do-it-yourself music style that pre-dated punk by more than 20 years, became a major craze, spawning other hit acts — Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, most famously — and encouraging hundreds of teenagers to form bedroom bands and hold garage rehearsals.

Skiffle’s time in the limelight was relatively brief. Donegan’s hits piled up but it wasn’t long before he pursued novelty and comedy records to maintain his momentum. And Presley’s impact was such that the new breed of British singers, moodily aping the sexuality of Elvis, quickly overtook the folksy, hearthside manner of Lonnie’s musical tales. Tommy Steele, then Cliff Richard, Billy Fury and Marty Wilde, mostly under the stewardship of a shrewd manager called Larry Parnes, became the focus of the new coffee bar scene and Donegan’s moment speedily faded. In later years Lonnie bemoaned the fact that his contribution to UK pop had been so under-rated in subsequent histories.

At the conference, my paper on skiffle’s absence from one of the acclaimed novels of the time, Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, reflects the way even contemporary accounts were not always willing to placer Donegan’s feats at the centre of the story. Lonnie, who died in 2002, was particularly aggrieved when the movie of the book emerged in 1986 and hardly touched upon his musical feats, focusing instead on rock’n’roll and jazz.

But just as revivalist jazz or country blues live on in the hands of enthusiasts, skiffle survives. Vince Eager, a survivor of skiffle’s original boom, and a string of bands such as the Doghouse Skiffle Group, the Ratcatchers Skiffle Group, the Ugly Dog Skiffle Combo and the Liverpool All Star Skiffle Combo, will keep the flame burning at the Liverpool celebration. Whether we’ll spot the ghost of Lonnie Donegan, who dares say, but the spirit of the man will undoubtedly haunt the occasion.