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Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle…
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Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (2017)

by Billy Bragg

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It's not where you finish, it's where you start.

This is a well-written history of the British skiffle movement -- which, in simplest terms, we might define as "the introduction of the guitar (and banjo, and other stringed folk instruments) into the British music scene." Since much of that change was associated with one musician, Lonnie Donegan, it also becomes a sort of a musical biography of Donegan.

So far, so good, and such a book is welcome. And yet -- I end up with reservations. And the reason is simple: I come from a folk background. American folk, British folk -- I am interested in both; both, after all, have much the same cultural heritage of old ballads and such. The difference between them is not the songs, it's the style. (American folk always had instrumentation, although fiddle and banjo more than guitar; British folk had less dance music and more a capella singing; also American Black working music, which is often the result of repression and had to survive without writing, is very different from British workers' music.)

This book comes at skiffle from a standpoint of jazz. This on the basis that the performers who were responsible for establishing the name "skiffle" came from a jazz background. But here's the thing: The music that became skiffle isn't jazz, and it doesn't even have much jazz influence. It's basically American folk music sung with a British accent! What was Donegan's first hit? "The Rock Island Line," as learned from the great American folk musician Lead Belly. (To give Billy Bragg his due, he correctly spells the name "Lead Belly," not "Leadbelly" as is too often done.) Follow-ups were songs like "John Henry" and "Wabash Cannonball" -- again, American folk songs.

So, to understand skiffle as a music, you need to truly understand American folk music. Bragg discusses it at length, but it all sounds like book learning. He doesn't understand playing by ear (even though both jazz and folk musicians do that), he doesn't understand the folk process, he doesn't really understand the phenomenon of field collecting.

And there is the confusing dynamic of rock and roll, which was evolving even as skiffle was evolving, and which became popular in Britain at the same time, and which also involved guitars (mostly electric, whereas skiffle was mostly acoustic). The point of this book is how the guitar invaded British music. And there is no doubt that it did. But it's a very complex story, and I feel like several threads are missing.

That's not to say this is a bad book. There are lots of useful facts, and it reads well, and it's a story worth telling. But it's not the whole story -- and, if you're an American folkie (or even, I suspect, a British folkie), you're going to feel like a second class citizen. ( )
1 vote waltzmn | Apr 22, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I have read several books about the history of popular music but all focused on the US until the Beatles. I had never heard of Skiffle and was fascinated to learn of it. The book is well written with numerous pictures so that the many names and threads do not overwhelm. Besides the history of a musical genre, it's the history of the emergence of the adolescent as a force in society. ( )
  snash | Apr 22, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Billy Bragg's Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is a wonderfully well-crafted history of the the often overlooked yet highly infuential and transformative craze that put a British stamp on music genres that had been well-rooted in America.

Bragg deftly contextualizes the music and its proponents, including Lonnie Donegan and Ken Colyer, within the social and political history and the overall popular culture of Britain in 1950's. Skiffle, with Donegan as its chief commercial success, was characterized by a fast beat, frenzied wailing vocals and the guitar's shift from the back of the band to the forefront, indeed igniting a massive boom of guitar sales to teenage boys.

But rather than just providing a mere snapshot of those few years, Bragg presents the brief skiffle era as part of a much larger tapestry of music history, with threads extending back to the earliest American roots of jazz, blues and folk; back to the influential likes of Lead Belly, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Kid Ory; and back through New Orleans, Chicago and even prisons scattered through the American South. He also extends the threads forward, illuminating skiffle's direct musical influence on the Beatles and the 1960's British Invasion, and cites it as the model of teen cultural rebellion which would decades later manifest as 1970's punk. Bragg writes with authority and passion. This is a brilliant homage to a largely forgotten facet of music history. ( )
1 vote ghr4 | Apr 21, 2017 |
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'Dead ground' is a term that I first came across during my brief spell as a trainee tank driver in the early 1980s.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0571327745, Hardcover)

Skiffle ― a “do-it-yourself” music craze with American jazz, blues, folk, and roots influences ― is a story of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy Boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthyite witch hunts. Skiffle is reason the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK and led directly to the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s.

Emerging from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s, skiffle was adopted by the first generation of British “teenagers” ― working class kids who grew up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. Before Skiffle, the pop culture was dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC. Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” and soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.

Like punk rock that would flourish two decades later, skiffle was home grown: all you needed were three guitar chords and you could form a group, with mates playing tea-chest bass and washboard as a rhythm section.

ROOTS, RADICALS AND ROCKERS is the first book to explore the Skiffle phenomenon in depth ― Billy Bragg’s meticulously researched and joyous account shows how Skiffle sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 06 Mar 2017 19:02:13 -0500)

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