Pop didn’t begin with the Beatles. It started with a scattered staccato on the ribs of a trash bin, the reedy twang of a guitar held in the hands of an outsider. It began with pimple-pocked faces and the sounds of washboards and tea chests, with the first generation of British teenagers seeking a collective voice. It began with skiffle.
Lost from our collective societal memory, skiffle was a musical phenomenon that gave voice to the young people of England in the ’50s against the backdrop of Cold War politics and uptight BBC-regulated media. Skiffle was music made with anything on hand, by youths with only a vague approximation of technique, but it changed the course of popular culture and broke ground for guitar-led pop supergroups.
The incredible (and mostly untold) tale of skiffle needed more than just an average storyteller. Luckily, none other than punk rock musician and activist Billy Bragg set out to do the job with Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, a new work he will be discussing at the Brookline Booksmith on July 20.
For his project, Bragg delved into the weird, wild, and wonderful, from stories about skiffle greats like Lonnie Donegan, the Vipers, and Nancy Whiskey, to a throwback about Pete Seeger’s banjo-playing teen half-sister. There are young ladies sipping coffee at ultra modern, formica-coated coffee shops, and there are so-called Teddy Boys dressed in Edwardian clothing, unsettling the status quo in a decidedly youthful way. There’s trad jazz, and communism, and pop and politics and everything in between, all centered around the story of what happened across the pond while America was watching Elvis.
I skyped across that very same pond to talk with Billy Bragg ahead of his Boston appearance, and to hear more about some of the greatest pop music you’ve never heard of.
You write that skiffle and punk rock were somewhat similar phenomenons. What made you decide to delve into skiffle as opposed to writing about your firsthand experiences with punk rock this time around?
Well, it’s sort of an instinctive thing. I think the punk rock round has been pretty much gone over, whereas skiffle has kind of been forgotten. And particularly in the US, many people don’t have any cognizance of it at all. Which is, to me, a pity because it’s so crucial in the story of the British invasion of the charts.
Any nation that takes [the Beatles movie] Eight Days a Week to its heart … I was over in America touring … when Eight Days a Week came out, and it was like a national orgasm to see the Fab Four so young again. And I thought, you should really know the story! It’s an absolute key component of what the Beatles did, their ability to channel American culture through skiffle. Skiffle was the gateway to an American culture that wasn’t mediated by adults, by the BBC, by what you might call “mainstream taste.”
The music they were listening to, they felt like [it] was “outsider music.” If you were a British teenager and saw a guitar, it would always be in the hands of an outsider. An old blues guy … a Calypsonian … a cowboy. By identifying with those outsiders, teenagers were breaking with their mainstream culture.
So it’s like this book is an answer to skiffle being left out of our collective societal memory …
The predominant experience would be 13, 14, 15- year- olds playing in church halls, scout huts, school gymnasiums, their parents’ backrooms, never making records, maybe doing a gig one time, supporting the Vipers or playing with Lonnie Donegan once … and then skiffle is superseded by rock ‘n’ roll and eventually they get electric guitars. Then they become bands like the Beatles.
So what I think happened to skiffle is that when [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] came out 50 years ago, rock became serious. And the other thing that came out in 1967 was Rolling Stone magazine. So if Rolling Stone is going to take you seriously … and ask you who inspired you, you’re not about to say Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey now are you?
Skiffle becomes juvenalia. It’s not so much forgotten as put in the attic like those awkward school photos no one ever sees.
Roots, Radicals, and Rockers comes out at an interesting time. Skiffle emerged against the backdrop of the Cold War as a way for the disillusioned youth of Britain to find a voice against an apathetic world. Now, Russia, North Korea, Brexit, intercontinental missiles … are you seeing any echoes or are we in new territory?
I think there are echoes. The thing that’s changed is that skiffle was able to do that because it was the beginning, the very beginning in my country, of music being the vanguard of youth culture. In the 20th century, music was our social medium. It had to contain everything: love, hate, politics, football, the weather, Eastern mysticism. The way we had to communicate with each other was popular music.
The music magazines that sprang up was where we thrashed out those ideas. Since the turn of the century, music has lost its vanguard role to a large extent for the majority of young people. There are exceptions, like Beyonce at the Super Bowl.
I do hope that music plays a role. Something that seems to be under attack in your country and in mine these days is empathy. For people like me, as a musician, my currency is empathy. Music can make you feel for someone you’ve never met. Those of us who use empathy as a means to communicate need to fight our cynicism and make the connection between empathy and action. Because if you mix empathy and action, you get solidarity. That’s what I want to see.
So, my generation … millennials … instead we have the reputation as apathetic, especially towards politics.
Let me tell you a terrible secret. In 1979, I had the first opportunity to vote. I think I was 20. And I was a punk rocker and I believed in anarchy and I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I was absolutely sure that politics had nothing to do with me. So I didn’t bother voting in the general election that year.
Margaret Thatcher won. In the next few years, we had a war with the Falklands, we had American nuclear missiles based in our country, and the welfare state that had put me on my feet and looked after my family was under severe attack. So by 1983 I was politicized.
Brexit has done that to our millennials. A mixture of Brexit happening and Trump being on the telly all the time has galvanized a whole generation.
Also speaking of millennials, it’s funny to think of teenagers creating skiffle with broom handles and wire and tea chests when nowadays everyone walks around with an iPhone attached at the hip. Do you think technology is for better or for worse when it comes to music?
I used to feel, metaphorically, that I stood by a vast river of music and everything that was happening came down that river and I hooked out anything that was interesting to me. Now, I feel like I’m on a small boat on a calm sea and I’m only hearing the stuff that swims near me.
The thing about the internet is that it does give everybody the opportunity to express their view. When I was 19 years old, there was only one medium available to me. And that was to pick up the guitar, learn how to play it, write songs, and do gigs. Now, if you’re 19 and you’ve got something to say about the world, there’s a number of things you can do. More people get to speak and express their views. The downside is, no one is going to invite you to Boston to read out your tweets. So if you actually want to see the world and engage with people, music is a better way of doing it.
I’ve loved your song “A New England” as ages 21 and 22 have come and gone. What’s it like for you to listen to your early songs as a big birthday approaches?
Sixty is a birthday you can’t really ignore because you can’t kid yourself that you’re young anymore when you get to 60. So I’m kind of giving up being hip. I’m not sure if I technically ever was hip, really. Which is kind of good because then you never become un-hip. And certainly skiffle isn’t hip. And talking to people about trad jazz is really un-hip in England, but it’s absolutely fascinating. So I think maybe being fascinating is better than being hip, what do you think?
BILLY BRAGG. ROOTS, RADICALS, AND ROCKERS: HOW SKIFFLE CHANGED THE WORLD. THU JULY 20. 7PM/FREE/ALL AGES. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, BROOKLINE. BROOKLINEBOOKSMITH.COM