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”.
What is it like to be a gifted musician? This question is explored by the bestselling author Mitch Albom in his novel The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto. It tells the story of a young orphan born into a Spain torn apart by civil war. The boy learns to play guitar and flees death and destruction to end up in the United States where he has encounters with Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Frankie eventually retreats from soulless fame and fortune to live a life of obscurity. But his legend refuses to wither and die – despite his best efforts.
What makes this novel memorable is its narrator: Music. Another of Albom’s creative coups was persuading the likes of Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennet and Paul Stanley, of the rock band Kiss, to bear witness to their part in Frankie’s incredible story – hinting at how his musicianship influenced theirs. The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto is an inspired work of fiction that strives to articulate the essence of music; its rigorous technique and potent emotion. The novel even has its own musical companion to enhance its atmospheric storytelling.
Does love conquer all? What is the cost of pursuing your dreams? These timeless questions are posed by La La Land. The screen musical, despite its feel-good song-and-dance numbers, has a melancholic motif as a love story unfolds. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist passionate about jazz whose ambition is to run his own jazz club; Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress/writer. Fate brings them together but then stuff, as they say, keeps getting in the way. I watched the acclaimed movie at York City Screen today; excellent entertainment.