“It wasn’t an era of great musicianship but by cracky, it was fun”
Their names were Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon. They were part of the Liverpool music scene in the late 50s. Their group was the Quarrymen, and they played skiffle. Later they started playing rock & roll, along with dozens of other groups in the area who started playing the “Mersey Beat”, named for the river that flows in Liverpool. In 1955 they renamed their group the “Beatles”, riffing off “Mersey Beat”. And the rest is history.
Skiffle is a type of music influenced by the blues, folk music, jazz, and country. It became popular because the instruments used to play it are rudimentary and inexpensive. The term “skiffle” was a slang term for a rent party, where a small charge was collected to attend a musical event. The origins of the music is obscure, some claiming it came from New Orleans, but all over the American South jug bands were common, even if the word wasn’t. Skiffle was first popular in the U.S. in the 20s and 30s, and the term was used for jug band music. In the 50s, young and destitute musicians in the U.K. rediscovered this type of music, inspired by Lonnie Donegan (the undisputed king of skiffle) and his hit rendition of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” in 1954.
The instruments used to play skiffle are varied: Guitars, banjoes, mandolins, ukuleles, accordions, tea chests, pottery moonshine jars, saw blades, washboards (for rhythm), wash tub bases, kazoos, and harmonicas, to name some.
|Tea chest bass|
But skiffle has never died. Donegan continued playing until his death in 2002. The Ugly Dog Skiffle Combo still sells records, as do the Vipers, the Sunshine Skiffle Band, and many others. The Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band (formed from the Instant Action Jug Band of Berkeley – the house band for the famous Berkeley coffee house “The Jabberwock”) held a concert as recently as June of 2008. It remains to be seen if the attempts at a skiffle revival will ever bring it the success it once had, but perhaps if today’s youth became more familiar with it, it could happen. The right circumstances exist, same as 50s England: tight economy, youths wanting to be musicians, the affordability of the instruments. Exposure to this type of music, and maybe some instruction on making and playing the instruments, may be all it would take. It would do wonder for the washboard, tub, and moonshine jar industries!An article by London film critic and skiffle player Mark Kermode from 2008 speaks of its still current appeal.