Dan Nichols has been a washboard player and singer in Railroad Bill Skiffle group for 27 years. This is him with his mouth open trying to remember the words to Lost John.
In 1954 in Britain, boys wore shorts until they were 12 and dressed like their dads thereafter, rationing had only been over for 2 years and nobody who wasn’t a proper musician could play the guitar. Music wasn’t talked about in school playgrounds or considered a likely occupation if you weren’t trained. Then when a quirky Leadbelly story song called the Rock Island Line sung by a nasal cockney Glaswegian called Lonnie Donegan was released and became an enormous worldwide hit, the skiffle craze was born. By 1957 there were an estimated 30-50000 skiffle groups in Britain, boasting maybe 100000 teenage guitarists,….nearly all of them playing rhythm!
By 1958 however, Skiffle had been pronounced dead and for many it was never to be heard of again except in your Grandad’s memories of a hokey number about dustmen. The accepted wisdom was that this happened because skiffle was crap.
Only skiffle never really died and wasn’t crap at all. It was pretty much responsible for everything that followed in british popular music. the Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, Led Zepplin and the love for explosive new music that made John Peel unique would never have happened without it. (Members of the first four all played in skiffle groups and the fifth like thousands of others of his generation was turned on to music by hearing it for the first time.)
Skiffle’s energy, wit, DIY attitude and ability to interpret American music for British ears provided early inspiration for all of them and could be heard across their life’s work. Skiffle also created the template for wave after wave of teen craze that swept Britain afterwards.
To best understand the impact of skiffle from a modern perspective you need to think about those occasional seismic shifts that have rumbled up from the underground since such as Merseybeat, punk rock or rave culture. Like them it was easy to play and imitate, vibrant, up tempo and coming at a time when it something was really needed to shake things up for young people. Like them it took and reinvented an American form and turned it into something uniquely British. Only the skiffle craze was more widespread than any of the others and in terms of the numbers and had more effect too in that it virtually invented the British music scene as we know it.
Geoff Nichols, my uncle, was a member of leading 50s skiffle and jazz group and the Avon Cities (featuring Ray Bush who as this number proves had a great voice). He told me that, at the height of skiffle madness, his band were asked to judge skiffle competitions in the West Country.
“There would be hundreds and hundreds of these bands” he said, before adding with a glazed expression “all playing the same three songs!”. When, over 20 years later Mark Perry made the punk call to arms to the nations teenagers to learn three chords and “Go and form a band” he was already just a revivalist! Punks weren’t the first bored teenagers trying to fill the vacuum.
Due to Skiffle subsequent generations of teenage boys stopped dream of becoming engine drivers (though Skifflers still sang about them endlessly). From Skiffle on the end of the last century, the only thing to do if you didnt know what to do was play guitar and start bands. The brilliant yet, typically cos it’s skiffle, out of print book “The Skiffle Craze” by Mike Dewe which my friend, the skiffle, ska, and rock n roll dj Liam Curtin described as the skiffle equivilant to John Robb’s “Punk Rock an Oral History” tells the fascinating story of how the craze swept the nation.
The usage of washboards and tea chest basses, instruments made from common household items, which were easy for anyone with a semblance of rhythm to play meant that if you had one person who could play a few chords then you had a band. The experience of growing up in Britain would never be the same again.
While many have now recognised that Skiffle was an important stop along the road there is still a view abroad that the music isn’t up to much, that its a poor imitation of American blues, jugband and country music. People are always telling me to go back and listen to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie for the real stuff. As if I haven’t! I agree that it’s importance can’t be underestimated and all that but for me the attitude that British skiffle was just a way of waking people up to better music couldnt be more wrong. British skiffle music is in itself brilliant, that’s why ive spent 27 years playing it! Skiffle is essentially a fusion of of folk, jug band, blues, country, rock n roll, and jazz. It borrows heavily from all those traditions particularly the wonderful folk songs often attributed to Leadbelly or his great rival “trad”. It sometimes uses all those elements sometimes only a few, modern exponents have also added punk, Cajun, Cumbia, Reggae and world music elements. I think some of the most exciting records of all time came out of the British interpetation of the genre. like ska in Jamaica that has something to do with the slightly loopy rhythm that came about through a different, almost wrong, instrumentation and an attitude that boundless energy could make anything sound good.
Have a listen to the beginning of Lonnie’s Cumberland Gap and tell me if that breathless driving guitar riff is a piece an old man music, this song has an edge that had hadn’t been in any American country and rock n roll that had charted up to this point.
My favourite skiffle group was the Vipers. Lead by Wally Whyton. their driving rabble rousers “Dont You Rock Me daddyo” (which was taken from a sea shanty) or “Streamline Train” they sound like street punk to me.
There are other highlights, the great voice of Nancy Whiskey on Chas McDevitt’s “Greenback Dollar” or the laid back and underrated style of Ken Colyer. Johnny Duncan’s “Last train to San Fernando” is a classic too, but i’m sure there were also thousand little gems that never got recorded or that sit in someone’s attic on a reel to reel tape waiting to be pored over by archivists as soon as their Grandkids decide “those boring tapes must be worth something” .
Johnny Cash famously adopted the choppy off beat guitar sound on Folsom Prison Blues from British Skiffle musicians he met on national service in europe.
So if it was so great, why was the skiffle craze so shortlived? There are two main reasons. One is obvious, it was almost immediately followed across by Rock n Roll which was Brash, electric and sexy in a way that the group of converted trad jazzers in scruffy suits and zip up cardies who found themselves at the forefront of the skiffle movement could never be.
The second reason is one you arrive at pretty quickly after you start a skiffle band, and is another parallel with punk. It is not the best form of music for expressing increased musical sophistication or generating the power to fill a big dance hall. It requires a certain intimacy and involvement from audiences. Because of this, the moment you start writing songs for it you find yourself sounding less and less like a skiffle group, something Railroad Bill discovered quickly. You replace the tea chest bass and washboard with electric bass and drums and your sound starts to develop further and further from the sound you started with. Tommy Steele, Joe Brown and Lonnie himself realised this and continued their successful careers in different genres of music.
Skiffle has continued to be an influence, re-emerging in different ways in bands like Mungo Jerry, Chas n Dave or on individual records, one example being the Coral’s “Dreaming of You” or parts of the only Fratelli’s album anyone liked, but it hasn’t really troubled the charts under it’s own name since the 50s.
The 80s was a decade that came nearest, throwing up enough new skiffle influenced bands to almost qualify as a revival, The Shakin Pyramids, Pleas Y’self, The Boothill Foot tappers, Terry and Gerry, The Gutter Brothers, The Railtown Bottlers and my band Railroad Bill, all had minor music or media successes during this decade.
Railroad Bill was formed in 1986 by myself and my friends Chris (teachest bass), Andy (mandolin) and Phil (guitar) because none of us were good enough musicians to be in a proper band and Chris’s Dad had all the old records! We were booked to play as a one off at a fundraising party themed for the opening of the film of Absolute Beginners. A very tenuous way to start my 27 year Skiffle oddysey which has taken us from Cork to Italy, to Singapore via 8 Glastonbury festivals, gigs with Lonnie Donegan himself and an appearance as Chas McDevitt’s backing band at Camp Bestival. We had a triumphant appearance Cambridge Folk Festival and many distinctly untriumphant ones in social clubs, weddings and busking festivals all over the world, somehow in the process becoming at times a bit like the rambling men we sing about. We have remained resolutely DIY and self managed probably correctly assuming that we didn’t fit anybody’s description of popstars. I’m quite sure that the only reason we’ve never stopped is because we’ve always had one more gig lined up.
In the early 90s, frustrated by the shackles of skiffle we tried to cross over into the burgeoning folk punk scene whilst keeping a skiffle feel. The result can be seen on this song Iron and Steel which we performed on telly, whilst tying up the late Brian Hibbard out of The Flying Pickets for fun. Electric bass? shocking behaviour!
Most of the 80s bands packed it in at some point but i’ve had a feeling for the past decade that something was happening with Skiffle again.
Mark Kermode the film critic and double bass player in the Railtown Bottlers and now the excellent Dodge Brothers, has struggled manfully to reboot the much maligned genre with tv appearances and a great Observer article lauding a type of music that caught his soul at the same time as it did mine. John Peel delivered a moving homage to Lonnie Donegan in his postumously published autobiography and Lonnie played at Glastonbury and before he died recorded and toured with Van Morrison.
Other 6 music types, including Mark Lamarr and (Kermode claims), Richard Hawley, from my generation have said how much they loved skiffle too and London Club night king Gaz Mayall of Gazs Rockin Blues gave all the Skiffle bands he could find a go at his legendary Soho club. For the last few years bands like ourselves, Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs and The Dodge Brothers have been appearing at festivals such as Glastonbury, Larmer Tree and Bestival playing our very different brands of the genre.
This increased activity has been all very well but every single band and commentator who says they loved skiffle until recently has belonged to my own generation or one before our own. In the last couple of years that has changed though, with a slew of youthful skiffle influenced bands which has accompanied the recent Retro Boom with it’s old mans demob suits and retro djs such as Greg Butler and Count Skylarkin giving Skiffle a good airing. (It strikes me that the mid 50s the early 80s and now have quite a lot in common, austerity, a real music scene struggling for identity and a fuckin horrible Tory government, but never mind that for now). Younger bands like Thrill Collins and The Mighty Peas mix modern pop standards with skiffle with great savvy and cheeky Lonniesque smile on their faces.
Easily the most high profile of these new bands though are London’s The Severed Limb.
The Limb are led by Rob Paul, who saw Lonnie on telly performing in one of those glasto green room things and wondered if he could do anything with the genre, he’d been there and seen Joe Strummer but his dad had recorded Lonnie. Strummer feels a definite skiffler to me in the way he mixed things up so maybe Rob’s time wasn’t entirely wasted on lesser beings than the great Donegan.
Rob agrees with Kermode that part of the joy of skiffle is it allows you to be eclectic. Mark pointed this out to me in his Observer article when I hypocritically accused the Dodge Brothers of not being pure skiffle in what had to be the most genteel and respectful band war since Ken Colyer versus Chris Barber! Its a point I now heartily concede Mark! Purism is an arse, you were right. There’s a bit of Zydeco and a hint of Bo Diddley as well as some Clash, some real rock n roll and a contemporary London feel to the Severed Limb’s new album “Kill you and bill you the price of the bullet” which has had Steve Lamacq, Mark Radcliffe, Gideon Coe and all those lags grinning from ear to ear!
“I listened to bands like Terry and Gerry and yourselves after i decided to form a skiffle band” says Rob, “I was a bit naive I didn’t know there had been bands since the 50s, of course someone else had had the idea in the last 50 years!”
Will the Severed Limb break through to a wider audience? Thankfully Rob doesn’t seem very bothered! Last year the band were approached by Schuh to take part in an advert depicting groovy kids busking in their shoes. They turned the opportunity down only to be replaced in the eventual advert by an identical (albeit better looking sorry lads) Skiffle band, with the same unique line up, (accordion is not a regular skiffle instrument) the fake washboard player played his instrument in the same one handed way as the Limb’s Leo Lewis and the song was suspiciously similar to one of theirs, ( Rob thinks its a good thing that he’ll never prove this, as music is free and in Skiffle, there aren’t that many riffs to go round). Faceless corporatism is the antithesis of Skiffle and that could another reason be why it has proved a hard genre to package neatly. Sometimes its frustrating being part of a music no one at work has heard of but sometimes its also kind of cool. Despite this I want them to invade the public consciousness so that Skiffle gets a good reputation once and for all and therefore genuinely hope they do break through.
I love the Severed Limb and I love all skiffle music and anyone who identifies with it. When I’m out busking I love talking tea chest design and washboard playing styles with 74 year old men and watching the light return to their eyes just as i love the occasional teenager looking on with interest and thinking “Hey, you know, thats something i could do!” Its a social movement and though it was banned from folk clubs by Ewen MacColl (am i allowed to call a great dead man a fucking arse for this? well I will anyway), it has more resonance in every chord, of a vibrant post war Britain, with power, heart and soul than all those farts in floaty dressed and beards so popular at the moment.
I’ve just seen Sinead O’ Connor playing something awfully like Skiffle on telly. With half an eye on the zeitgeist Railroad Bill are in the studio making our first new album of original songs for years, now channeling the spirit of Lionel Bart and Viv Stanshall as well as Leadbelly and Lonnie! It maybe the 8th false Skiffle revival since we formed, it may be the real thing, but it isn’t gonna make us or any of the others stop whatever happens! Like the outlaw heroes that walk through the songs we sing, Lost John, Stacker Lee, Jesse James and Railroad Bill himself (whose legend was so bad the white and black communities in America blamed him on each other…a bit like us but not in a musical way) Skiffle can’t ever be killed off completely.
Find The Severed limb (buy their new album), the Dodge Brothers and Railroad Bill at our websites none of the other bands mentioned are more than a google click away. Railroad Bill and The Severed Limb play at the Full Moon club Cardiff on Thursday March 7th.