“Skiffle” is a form of music that developed in the U.S. in the 1920s as a down-home blend of jazz, blues and folk, faded into obscurity, then re-emerged in the UK in the 1950s and changed the world.
While the term “skiffle” was a slang term used in the ’20s to refer to a “rent party,” which was a social gathering with a small charge that people held to raise money to pay for rent on their house, the origins of “skiffle” as a musical form are in dispute–did it arise from New Orleans Jazz? did it appear in the form of improvised jug bands that played early blues and jazz across the American South? Whatever the origins of the form, skiffle bands came to embody a unique form of roosty, do-it-yourself music-making. Rather than move
toward more and more complicated arrangements performed by more and more virtuosic musicians like other forms of blues and jazz, skiffle remained consciously self-made: instruments in a 1920s skiffle band might include, in addition to the standard acoustic guitar, a jug, a tea-chest bass, a washboard, a cigar-box fiddle, a musical saw or even a kazoo. While the form may have been fun it never really caught on; the term “skiffle” all but disappeared by the ’40s.
But not in England. In the 1950s a British traditional jazz guitarist named LONNIE DONEGAN became interested in the form and began to play skiffle in the intermissions of his jazz band performances, accompanying other band members who played a washboard and tea-chest bass. They played American folk songs and in 1956 even recorded a cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line.” The song was a
big hit. [Watch Donegan skiffle himself silly on British TV.]
Donegan and his skiffle band ended up having many more hits in the U.K. in the ’50s, but ultimately his own music isn’t his legacy. Donegan was important in the development of global culture because of the musicians he inspired to start their own skiffle bands–young blokes, some of who may have heard of. Like VAN MORRISON. MICK JAGGER. JIMMY PAGE. DAVID GILMOUR. Oh, and this guy named JOHN LENNON whose skiffle band, The Quarrymen, were a first iteration of his “other band,” THE BEATLES. These musicians eventually ditched exchanged homemade instruments for international stardom. But it all started with skiffle.
[Watch a 13 year old Jimmy Page, eventually of Led Zeppelin fame, and his skiffle band in 1957, perform, “Mama Don’t Allow No Skiffle Anymore” | Watch Page about ten years later playing “I’m a Man,” when he was a member of the Yardbirds, on the BBC show Shivaree (note the amazing Shivaree dancers)]