by Alex Cosper (12/3/13)
Skiffle music was a blend of folk, jazz and several other styles that reflected English working class musicians who handcrafted their own instruments. It's one of the primary influences besides American rock and roll that characterized the early sound of The Beatles. The music developed throughout the 20th century and was popularized by Lonnie Donegan in the 1950s. Skiffle went on to impact other pop, rock, folk, country, jazz and blues artists. It is believed that this type of music originated in New Orleans in the early 1900s.
Some of the most common homemade instruments used in skiffle were washboards and jugs. A jug was usually an empty container made of glass or stone that generated sound from buzzing into it like a woodwind instrument, similar to the way a soda bottle can create sounds blowing into it. The jug was used to create bass and rhythm effects. Many times musicians would use the cheapest materials imaginable to create instruments, such as a comb and a piece of paper or a "cigar box fiddle" that consisted of a cigar box, blocks of wood, wire and thumb tacks. These homeade creations were mixed with kazoo, guitar, banjo and other traditional instruments.
The main purpose behind skiffle music was originally to throw house parties with a cover charge to raise money to pay rent. Its roots include African American rhythms and American jazz sounds of the 1920s. Early bands of the genre included Jimmy O'Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers and Dan Burley and His Skiffle Boys. Both of these bands came from the American South. Lonnie Donegan revived the countrified music in the 1950s and mixed it with jazz. Other pioneers of the music during this era included Ken Colyer, Dan Burley and Chris Barber.
The repertoire of skiffle music consisted of a lot of American folk and blues covers. In 1955 Decca Records released a record that ignited the skiffle craze in Britain. It was recorded by The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group with a cover of the Lead Belly song "Rock Island Line" on the A side and "John Henry" on the B side. The record made top ten in the UK as well as the United States. It became the first million selling record in British history.
The Lonegan single was influential because it used low budget instruments, inspiring a grass roots movement of bands that created their own instruments from scratch. By the end of the decade there were thousands of skiffle bands in the UK. It even had impact on the BBC when in 1957 a skiffle tune became the theme song of a TV music-based series called Six-Five Special. Some of the regional skiffle artists who went on to become international performers included Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Jimmy Page, Cliff Richard and David Gilmour. The music became overshadowed by rock and roll in the late fifties.
SKiffle was usually upbeat with country melodies and sometimes humorous lyrics. Jimmy Page appeared as a teenager on the Huw Wheldon Show on BBC TV in 1957. He performed with an early band that talked about how they built their own instruments. Each of the musicians had aspirations of doing scientific work when they grew up. They performed a song about New Orleans, which is also mentioned in the spoken word section of "Rock Island Line" by Lonnie Donegan. While not as vibrant as rock and roll, skiffle was considered a precursor to rockabilly music.
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