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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 16:09 GMT
The home-made sound of skiffle
Lonnie Donegan
Lonnie Donegan was one of the biggest Skiffle stars

The word skiffle dates from the 1920s - although it is a cause of some argument as to who coined it and how it stuck to the music it now describes.

Some say it came from a 1929 track, authors unknown, called Hometown Skiffle.

Very soon it became a catch-all term to describe jazz played on cheap or home-made instruments.

Jon Pertwee trying his hand at Skiffle. Adam Faith is on the left with guitar. From BBC show Six Five Special
Skiffle conquered the UK charts in the 1950s
Not everyone who wanted to play could afford the luxury of proper instruments - percussion was replaced by washboards and tubs, with tea chest and broom-handle bass and ukuleles and kazoos replacing guitars.

Jug bands - where some of the rhythm came from blowing into a porcelain jug - had been a feature of American music dating back to the 1890s.

US jug bands tended to play traditional jazz, whereas British groups stuck closer to 1930s country and folk.

But skiffle was a peculiarly British phenomenon. It took black blues and nascent jazz from America and re-worked it through crude, home-made instruments.

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show
A UK skiffle group beat The Beatles to the Ed Sullivan show
In the 1950s, as the UK slowly moved from post-war austerity to peacetime prosperity, UK teens started to turn skiffle into a craze.

Unlike the United States, there were no radio stations picking up on rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll.

The links between the music-hall culture and pop music were more pronounced here, too.

Skiffle was simple, it was rhythmic, and it was being played in coffee houses, concert venues and music halls all over the country.

Some commentators have likened it to the DIY punk ethos - form your own band, play your own gigs - a good 20 years before the Sex Pistols and The Clash emerged.

Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler
Mark Knopfler: Influenced by skiffle
While Lonnie Donegan was the genre's leading light, The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group were also big stars.

Six years before The Beatles appeared on The Ed O'Sullivan Show, McDevitt's band played their hit Freight Train Runnin' to an audience of 45 million.

A US craze could have been in the making if it were not for the fact that the Everly Brothers were on the same episode, playing their first hit Bye Bye Love.


The arrival of Elvis and Chuck Berry signalled the beginning of the end of the skiffle craze.

By then, there was a generation of rock 'n' roll musicians-to-be who had cut their teeth on skiffle.

Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were huge skiffle fans when they formed The Quarrymen in 1957 and Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler admits it was a major influence, as does Van Morrison and members of The Shadows.

By the time The Beatles and The Shadows broke through, skiffle was in terminal decline. But then, at least, it could be argued it was partly responsible for its home-grown replacement.

See also:

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