This blog post about the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.
Billy Bragg will be here for a book talk, July 21 at 7:00 pm in the Mumford Room of the James Madison Memorial Building. The event is co-sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. The event also will be livestreamed on the Library’s Facebook page at facebook.com/libraryofcongress and its YouTube site (with captions) at youtube.com/LibraryOfCongress. Find all the details here!
Depending on whom you ask in my age group, Billy Bragg is either a big name singer-songwriter or simply a rock star. His songs and performances have earned the respect of audiences and critics alike. With a new book out about music history, he’s earning the respect of historians and book reviewers as well.
So just who is this Bragg fellow? He’s reinvented himself a few times over the years, so I may have to catch you up. You might know some of the hits he produced in the 1980s; his gentle teen love song “A New England” moved his own fans in 1983 when he recorded it with just his guitar, then reached an even wider audience through Kirsty MacColl’s pop arrangement a year later, which was a top-ten hit. His labor anthem “Between the Wars” got some of the same kids thinking about politics and justice, when he sang it on the TV show Top of the Pops in 1985. Continuing to write an equal mix of tortured love songs and polemical barn-burners, he captured the energy, idealism, and angst of youth in 1980s Britain. He was even sometimes called the “spokesman for his generation,” which he famously quipped was “the worst job I ever had.” 
You might also remember Bragg’s deep involvement with the Woody Guthrie legacy, which came about when Woody’s daughter Nora had the inspiration to ask Bragg, along with the band Wilco, to write music for some of Guthrie’s unsung lyrics. That ultimately resulted in the three CDs of the Mermaid Avenue Sessions, as well as the documentary film Man in the Sand. Or you might have followed his career since then, during which he’s released thoughtful albums like William Bloke and England, Half English, as well as more polemical ones like Tooth & Nail and the compilation Fight Songs. If you’re a folk traditionalist, you might even know his work with the British folk-rock band The Imagined Village, which placed Bragg and other punk icons like Paul Weller alongside more traditional folk musicians in a folk-rock/electronica context.
But you still might not know about Billy Bragg’s more scholarly side. On June 1, Faber & Faber released his book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World in the UK; the US date was July 11. The book occupies the middle ground between music history, pop culture scholarship, and folklore. It tells the story of the skiffle music craze, which hit Britain in the mid-1950s, examining its roots in folk music and jazz, its social and cultural contexts, and its impact on later pop and folk music. The book covers major figures from Ken Colyer and Lonnie Donegan to Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl, and on to John Lennon and Jimmy Page. More importantly, it covers the throngs of regular kids who made music while pursuing other jobs and livelihoods—an approach that makes Billy Bragg a “Hidden Folklorist,” perhaps even a “Blokelorist.”
Skiffle is largely a forgotten movement today, but it was crucially important to popular music in 1950s Britain as the main reason the guitar came to the forefront of music. In this sense, it led directly to both the UK folk scene and British rock and roll, including the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and David Bowie—not to mention Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, and the Watersons—all got their start playing skiffle.
The American Folklife Center has a strong connection to skiffle, too: the defining moment in the movement’s history is often taken to be Lonnie Donegan’s recording of “Rock Island Line,” a song first recorded for the Library of Congress by John and Alan Lomax in 1934, with Lead Belly acting as their assistant. Lead Belly learned and popularized the song, and Donegan learned it from Lead Belly’s recording. In this way, the Library’s folk archive, which is now part of AFC, contributed to sparking and fueling the skiffle craze.
Inspired by this connection, we asked Billy Bragg to give a book talk at the Library of Congress on the evening of July 21. If you can make it here, there will books for sale and a signing station so you can get it autographed. If not, the talk will be live-streamed on the Library’s Facebook Page and YouTube channel, so you can still watch. Find all the event details at this link!
To set the stage for this event, I asked Bragg some questions about Roots, Radicals and Rockers. The first question I thought people might have is, “what is skiffle?” As Bragg explains it, although American folk music was one of the main musical components, the most basic and revolutionary features of skiffle were its “Do It Yourself” attitude and its foregrounding of the guitar. The central instrument in any Skiffle lineup was an acoustic guitar, which was more innovative than you might think. Bragg explains:
Lonnie Donegan was the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar. Crooners had held sway since the 1930s. By playing guitar, Donegan gave teenagers in Britain a music they could call their own, differentiated from their parents’ music by its rawness and its roots. Teenage boys took the hint and sales of guitars leapt from 5,000 in 1950 to 250,000 in 1957.
With a guitar and few backing instruments, teenage skiffle musicians put together exciting renditions of (mostly) American folk material. Just as the kids were taking up instruments outside their parents’ experience, so too the repertoire was not their parents’ folk music, as Bragg explains:
Folk music in Britain was rural and, more often than not, unaccompanied — songs about farming and lords and ladies. Conversely, American folk music, embodied by the repertoire of Lead Belly, seemed much more contemporary — songs about railroads and outlaws.
In its rebellious energy and its fascination with outlaws, skiffle was a forerunner of punk. It also resembled punk in its do-it-yourself attitude; while the top stars used standard instruments, almost all amateur skiffle groups used tea-chest bass and washboard instead. This was one of its attractions for Bragg, himself a former punk-rocker:
Both skiffle and punk sought to empower a new generation of performers to make music on their own terms, rather than accept what they were being fed by mainstream culture. The punk credo was self-realisation – ‘Here’s three chords, now form a band’ ran the famous cover line on Sideburns fanzine in 1977. Skiffle was founded on the same principle: you don’t have to be a musician to make music. If punk was a low fi, Do-It-Yourself music, well the skiffle kids made their own instruments with stuff they bought in a hardware store. What could be more DIY than that?
After becoming intrigued with this relatively little-known genre, Bragg did some reading up. The only books he could find about skiffle, Skiffle by Chas McDevitt and The Skiffle Craze by Mike Dewe, focused largely on popular performers on the professional music scene. Bragg was interested in a wider perspective on the context for that professional music scene, the grassroots movement behind it. His interest led to research, which led to his writing Roots, Radicals and Rockers. He explains:
Although those who made skiffle records were born in the 1930s, the mass of skiffle players were much younger. Van Morrison was twelve years old when he first heard Lonnie Donegan. George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were 13, 14 and barely 16 respectively when they first saw Donegan perform in Liverpool in late 1956. All four of these kids were members of the first generation of British teenagers, a cohort born in the 1940s, who went on to take pop music by storm in the 60s. Skiffle was their first culture, one that they created themselves.
This skiffle generation were a new phenomenon in British culture – teenagers with spending power. And they were predominantly working class. Middle and upper class teens went into higher education and then spent long years training in professions like medicine and the law, so their earning power was deferred until adulthood. The skiffle kids were leaving school at 15 and easily finding work in an economy that was throwing off its post-war gloom. Rationing finally ended in 1954, so these teens had never been able to just go into a sweet shop and buy whatever they wanted. When they got some money in their pockets, they immediately sought to define themselves as different from their parents by creating their own culture. I wanted to explore the forces that led to this sudden outpouring of creativity.
Bragg’s research included reading previous histories, of course, and he mentions Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation and Samuel Charters’s A Trumpet around the Corner as particularly important to his reading. He also did archival research at the British Library in London, among music magazines and newspapers going back to the pre-war period. One of his more interesting discoveries was how much discographical research can be done these days on online auction sites, without even buying any records:
Skiffle came along just as vinyl was replacing shellac as the main format for singles. Once an artist had released a couple of 78 rpm 10″ singles, their record company would compile them onto 45 rpm 7″ EPs. To encourage teenagers to buy into this new format, the EPs came in picture sleeves, with copious notes. Vendors selling old skiffle records on ebay tend to display both front and back of the EP sleeves and often the record label too. This provided a rich source of detail when trying to reconstruct and date the 60-year-old back catalogues of obscure skiffle recording artists.
Finally, like any good folklorist or oral historian, Bragg relied on interviews with participants in both the professional scene and the grassroots movement. He personally knows some veterans of the professional skiffle scene, including Peggy Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joe Boyd, so arranging interviews with them was relatively easy. But how to reach younger participants, whose links to skiffle music might remain undocumented? His solution was ingenious: he used social media to identify and meet former skifflers:
The most interesting interviewees were those who had been teenagers at the time. I found most of them via Facebook on a page that featured a gallery of photos from 1950s skiffle clubs. When someone posted ‘I was there,’ I dropped them a line and asked if they’d be willing to talk to me. One such person was Ron Gould, who had played in some of the earliest groups in Soho in 1955 and retains a teenager’s love of skiffle.
Ron Gould was particularly helpful in revealing the role that both the Library of Congress and other parts of the United States government played in the skiffle movement. The Library of Congress’s folk archive (which is now part of our archive here at AFC) had begun releasing albums of field recordings in the 1940s. A few years later, another government agency, the United States Information Service (USIS) established libraries in many world cities as a way of encouraging people to become comfortable with American culture. The Libraries stocked the Archive’s albums as examples of American culture at its best. In London, the USIS Library was in Grosvenor Square next to the U.S. Embassy. It became an important source of repertoire and inspiration for both professional and amateur skifflers. They simply had to get a library card in exchange for their name and address, and they could borrow Library of Congress record albums. In fact, sometimes the top professionals competed with their younger fans, as Ron Gould explained to Bragg:
In mid-50s Britain, it was practically impossible to find recordings by people like Lead Belly or Muddy Waters, so those made by John and Alan Lomax were very popular among the young members of the record library. Ron told me how frustrated he was to find that a Muddy Waters album he longed to hear was missing from the library. On asking why, he was told that it had been loaned out to a Mr. Tony (aka Lonnie) Donegan, who had failed to return it. When Ron confronted Donegan about this, he just shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the USIS could always order another copy.
One fascinating aspect of skiffle was, as Bragg puts it, a shift in popular music “from jazz-based to guitar-led.” This helped lead to rock and roll, which meant that, paradoxically, rock emerged from a scene that rockers themselves found hopelessly boring, British “trad jazz”:
For those of us who listened to music in the late 60s and 70s, trad jazz was the very definition of uncool, a staple of the cheesy light entertainment programmes our parents made us watch. Yet I was aware that skiffle had been invented by Ken Colyer, a trad trumpet player who was so obsessed with New Orleans jazz that he joined the Merchant Navy in order to get to the Crescent City and see his heroes playing live. He had no other way to learn how to play the music he loved, due to a long running dispute between the American Federation of Musicians and the British Musicians Union that led to a ban on US bands touring the UK from 1935 to 1955. I felt that there was a great story to be told, but recognised that it would be a real challenge to construct a narrative that explored the world of trad jazz from which skiffle emerged, not least because I knew next to nothing about jazz.
The Ken Colyer story, along with tales of other important people in skiffle history, such as Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt, and The Vipers, are told in detail in Bragg’s book. The author also takes historical detours into the life of Lead Belly and the history of “Rock Island Line,” and follows threads revealing the roles played by American expats living in Britain, such as Alan Lomax, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Peggy Seeger. He touches on the roles of musicians better known for work on the British folk scene, including Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins, and the Watersons. And of course, he follows the careers of skifflers who went on to pop stardom, including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones. But, true to his initial vision for the book, the emphasis is on the mass of younger musicians, the teenagers like Ron Gould, who got into making music for fun and moved on to other careers, many of them keeping music as a cherished hobby.
The story of skiffle argues strongly for the continuing, constant relevance of traditional folk music. It also foregrounds the importance of archives like the one maintained here at the American Folklife Center, which preserve the music, make it available to listeners, and encourage creativity. Bragg believes strongly in this:
Traditional music is always there to be used as a resource by successive generations. It may become unfashionable, but it never completely disappears. When the skiffle players were looking for inspiration from the roots of African-American culture, the Library of Congress recordings were a key resource that allowed a generation of teenagers to take control of British pop culture for the first time. British youth used this American roots music to build a bridge to the future, one that would eventually carry them across the Atlantic to conquer the US charts in the 1960s.
Billy Bragg’s book talk is July 21 at 7:00 pm in the Mumford Room of the James Madison Memorial Building. The event is co-sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. The event also will be livestreamed on the Library’s Facebook page at facebook.com/libraryofcongress and its YouTube site (with captions) at youtube.com/LibraryOfCongress. Find all the details here!
- Billy confirms the quotation, but says he was just being flippant about the impossibility of being such a spokesman. His actual worst job? “Working in an all night petrol station where the boss stole from my wages.” You heard it here first, in the footnotes!
- Interestingly, the USIS libraries didn’t mind much when their materials were stolen. On page 153 of his book about the USIA (of which the USIS was the overseas arm), John W. Henderson noted: “Free circulation sometimes results in a high rate of pilferage, which USIS librarians take philosophically on the theory that a stolen book may circulate with a higher velocity than a borrowed one and the ideas in it may permeate a wider area.” Lonnie Donegan’s theft of records demonstrates this principle very well: stealing those records helped him become a powerful ambassador for American music, so it served the US government’s agenda perfectly for him to steal them.