Washboards, Kazoos, Banjos: The History Of Skiffle
Bear Family Records
It may come as a surprise to many to learn that skiffle has a long, rich history. An amalgamation of field songs, spirituals and gospel music, along with a healthy dose of jazz and blues, it drew from these venerable roots and took on its own shades, in turn informing many of the beat bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, before they were known as The Beatles, the Fab Four went under the name The Quarrymen Skiffle Group – this little sub-genre has played a huge part in the shaping of modern music, influencing the likes of not only The Beatles, but The Who, Eric Clapton, The Shadows and countless others.
Skiffle has its roots on the streets of New Orleans, early last century, where poor musicians, in an effort to keep up with their more well-off contemporaries who had real instruments, would fashion their own – a funnel with a trumpet mouthpiece; cigar box or tin can banjos; tea chests with broom handles and a single string to make an upright bass. These groups were called spasm bands, and they played easy to learn standards and hymns on these easy to make instruments.
Despite the genre’s true origins though, it was in the UK that skiffle really took off, not long after World War II. A young Englishman named Ken Colyer, inspired by his older brother’s jazz records, made it his life’s mission to get to New Orleans, which he eventually did, becoming completely taken with how these spasm bands worked. He returned home, stepped in as band leader with a local outfit, renamed it Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, and from there it began.
Along the way, other future skiffle luminaries popped up in the form of Chris Barber and the now legendary Lonnie Donegan – Colyer may be known as the father of skiffle, but Donegan is the king. It was Donegan (guitar, vocals), Barber (bass) and Beryl Bryden (washboard) who in 1955, released Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’, which became a huge hit, and a skiffle wave overtook the UK. Sure, it was reasonably short lived, but whilst the candle burned, many were influenced.
If all this has piqued your interested then, look no further than the latest release from Bear Family Records, which if you read Marty Jones’ Attention Span on the back page, you’ll realise have a lot going on at the moment. One of those things is this, Washboards, Kazoos & Banjos: The History Of Skiffle, an immense collection of all things skiffle, beginning with Colyer’s contributions in the early ‘50s, and over the course of six discs, everything else to boot.
Accompanying the discs is a gigantic 88-page hardcover book (in both German and English, given BFR is based in Germany) with in-depth notes by Ulf Krueger, an accomplished skiffle player in his own right who both played and recorded with Donegan. Indeed, Donegan has said of Krueger, “[He] is skiffle in Germany!”
Accompanying Krueger’s extensive notes are photos, record jackets, play bills and posters of the many skiffle bands that have made a mark at some point or other in the history of the genre, making this the history of skiffle, something that’ll take you weeks to truly digest.
To the music at hand then. CD1 begins with a smattering of bands who would have influenced the genre initially (Memphis Jug Band, Alabama Washboard Stompers, Leadbelly), before we get into Colyer’s contributions – around twenty-six tracks in all. CD2 is all Donegan, 27 tracks with that nasally voice, veering from folky balladry to bluesy stomps, but always with that DIY edge that basically defined all skiffle. Interesting too to hear an Englishman singing songs like ‘My Dixie Darling’, with such an American theme, but such an English take on the music itself.
From there we head off into Chris Barber territory, and also the Vipers Skiffle Group, who had much success in the later ‘50s on a more commercial level, once the genre had already taken off in the UK thanks to Colyer, Donegan et al. Plus, Alan Lomax & the Ramblers make a brief appearance, as do the Alexis Korner Skiffle group – big names within a small genre.
The rest of the collection is made up of a myriad other skiffle groups, none of whom had the impact of the genre’s forefathers but all of whom contributed to this rich vein in musical history. If you’re a skiffle fan, I cannot urge you enough to get your hands on this epic collection. If you’re new to the genre, perhaps find something a bit smaller to begin with, but if it grabs you just right, Bear Family Records have just what you need. Music, presentation, research and information, it’s all here and then some.
Samuel J. Fell