Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.
Gifted singer-songwriter Reg Meuross gave an intimate concert at the Black Swan Folk Club this evening.
He sang about the Votes For Women martyr Emily Wilding Davison, the highwayman Dick Turpin, Dylan Thomas, Hank (Mr Lovesick Blues) Williams, the band leader’s violin that survived the Titanic disaster, Cicero, London, a hard-pressed NHS nurse and the young anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl.
I left the York pub with the lyrics of his topical song England Green And England Grey still resounding in my head; which, I felt, was appropriate as millions of votes cast in today’s General Election were being counted:
England green and England grey
Look out on a summer’s day
To all things bright and fair and gay
To my home, my love, my England.
I believe in dignity, rich or poor we’re all born free.
Austerity and slavery, I thought they were behind us.
I don’t believe the BBC, monarchy or anarchy
Or an empire built on piracy, by our history you’ll find us
For years our women had no say no right to work or equal pay.
God help the crippled and the gay, the fragile flowers of England.
Shut the factories, shut the mines, punish those fell on hard times
While they honour them who do the crimes, the greedy men of England
How can a man respect a man who steals his house and sells his land
And takes the wages from his hand to pay his own expenses.
The NHS our England’s jewel is bartered by Westminster’s fool
To justify his public school and military defences
Sing the songs of old John Bull, Cecil Sharp and John and Paul
Come English folk, come one and all to the sweet songs of our England
Take my hand and walk with me down the back roads to the sea
In spite of all, we’ll both agree there is none so sweet as England.