How old-timey ‘skiffle’ music liberated British rock

Arts

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, a British rock star with a new take on the birth of rock and roll. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Billy Bragg first rose to fame as a punk rock and folk musician in the early 1980s.

Now nearing 60, he's still singing hard-edged songs of protest and passion, here recently at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia.

In a new book "Roots, Radicals and Rockers", he's also looking back to an even earlier, lesser known but important moment in music history.

When a pop star named Lonnie Donegan and others took Britain by storm in the mid-1950s with a phenomenon called skiffle music.

BILLY BRAGG, Musician: What Donegan does, he's the first British artist to get in the charts playing a guitar, and he begins the process of turning into a guitar-led — British pop into a guitar-led music for teenagers. As the guitar becomes a kind of way that youngsters express the fact that they're different from their parents, as the guitar becomes that way they start to try and make the future happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: They did it, though, by listening to the past, to skiffle's roots in African- American culture, including traditional New Orleans jazz and the great American folk and blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly.

Lonnie Donegan had a hit in 1956 with Lead Belly's "Rock Island Line," and British kids picked up cheap acoustic guitars, homemade tea chest basses, and washboards to play something akin to American jug band or rockabilly music.

Bragg says it was a turning point for British culture, still coming out of its post-war depths.

BILLY BRAGG: Just a month before Lonnie Donegan records "Rock Island Line," food rationing ends in the U.K. It goes on after the Second World War because we have a huge balance of payments problem. Some things were rationed after the war that were never rationed during the war. Bread, for instance, was rationed for a short while after the war.

So, the kids who were playing skiffle have grown up not being able to go into a sweet shop and buy whatever they want. All of a sudden, they're 14, 15, 16. They're leaving school to go into work. They're getting paid reasonably well in the post-war boom and they want something that identifies them as different. And skiffle becomes that thing for the young men.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among those young men: 14 year old James Page, here on the BBC with his skiffle band.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You play anything except skiffle?

JIMMY PAGE, Musician: Yes, Spanish and dance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you? Well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jimmy Page would later become one of rock's biggest stars as the guitarist for Led Zeppelin. And he was hardly the only rocker to start out in skiffle.

BILLY BRAGG: Van Morrison was 12, you know? George Harrison was 13 when he saw Donegan. McCartney, 14. Lennon, 16.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those are big names later on.

BILLY BRAGG: Yes, yes. Teenagers, when they saw that, they knew that this was the future, that they needed to get ahold of one of those guitars. I mean, the sales of guitars, when — acoustic guitars, that is, went from 5,000 in one year, two to three years later to 250,000 guitars in a year.

And they're all — you know, they're not doing — it's not a scene. They're playing in back rooms and church halls. But it's what they do subsequently, when they're 20, 25, that really makes a difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Lennon and Paul McCartney's first group, The Quarrymen, started as a skiffle band. The rest, as they say, is history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three thousand screaming teenagers are at New York's Kennedy Airport to greet, you guessed it, the Beatles.

JEFFREY BROWN: As young British musicians plugged in, threw out the old- timey skiffle sounds to create their own, and brought that back across the Atlantic, in the British invasion.

BILLY BRAGG: From January 1964 to December 1965, there's a British group at number one in the American charts for 52 weeks out of 104. Every single one of them begins as a skiffle group. The only exception is Petula Clark, and she didn't need Donnie Donegan to help. She (INAUDIBLE) singles before skiffle started.

But everybody else, Chad and Jeremy, the Rolling Stones, the Tremolos, the Animals all have their roots in skiffle. Skiffle liberates those bands to get out there and play music at such a young age that when the Beatles break the charts in America in January '64, there's a whole cohort of British bands who've been playing for years, who are ready to go. And it takes American youth a little longer to catch up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Skiffle gave them the means, the something, to get up with a guitar.

BILLY BRAGG: It's the sense of empowerment that came with skiffle to very young people, to make them think they can make their own music, to not wait for someone else to make it. That's a very similar impulse to punk rock. And I think that's what drove the Beatles and all those other bands to write their own material.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Billy Bragg has continued to write his own songs while also working within traditions of the past. His most recent album, "Shine A Light," with the American singer-songwriter Joe Henry, was largely recorded in railway stations around the U.S.

And at the Birchmere concert, Bragg offered a beautiful version of a Woody Guthrie song.

But when I asked about his own coming-of-age, skiffle-style moment, he turned to his punk rock roots.

BILLY BRAGG: The Clash.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Clash?

BILLY BRAGG: More or less, yes. I saw the Clash when I was 19. Me and some friends of mine had been really interested in bands like Dr. Feelgood and the Jam, it was stripping it back. And we went to see the Clash at the Rainbow in 1978. And it seemed to, it's one of those watershed moments. It's like when the skifflers heard Donegan and had that it's that sort of ability to make your own culture that came with punk rock that really keeps me going. That's why I thought I could sit down and write a book about skiffle, rather than wait for someone to ask me.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown from the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thought we knew all about rock 'n' roll. So that's the NewsHour for tonight. I'm Judy Woodruff.

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