Skiffle Music

1920s Bluesy Jazz turned 1950s Improv Instrumentation

The 78 of Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line". rateyourmusic.com

Born of the harsh economic realities of a postwar Britain, "Skiffle" — a term that actually harkens way back to 1920s America — was a modern folk-country-blues hybrid that today remains almost completely indigenous to its origin countries, even though an entire generation of kids growing up in 1950s Britain — The Beatles chief among them — started out in skiffle bands.

Aside from Lonnie Donegan (who managed some popularity in the States, mostly as a novelty) and a few other groups, skiffle was a style that thrived among the common folk; few gained fame from it.

1920s American Jazz

Straight off the tailwind of jazz of the time, skiffle made its appearance in African-American culture in the early 20th century America. Characterized by using common household items as instruments, skiffle wasn't called such when it first appeared across much of the southern United States. Rather, the use of washboards, jugs, musical saws and paper kazoos in the New Orleans jazz scene of the 1920s was regarded as part of the larger jazz movement as a whole. 

The first use of the word "skiffle" in the Ameican lexicon referred to a "rent party," a house party with an admission price that went toward paying rent, and migrated north to Chicago during the 1920s during the influx of African-Americans migrating to more industrialized northern cities for work. The jazz music style of skiffle likely came with it.

However, there was little fame to be had from playing the style, especially since it was mostly played in dive bars and at the rent parties of the time.

Still, the genesis of skiffle lay in the "trad jazz" tradition of music that had itself sprung from New Orleans "Dixieland" jazz and was later popularized again when the Brits of the 1950s picked up the style again. 

Post-War Brits Rebirth a Genre

In the early 1950s, cash-strapped Brits began to play these tunes on homemade instruments — tea chests fashioned into standup basses, guitars made from cigar boxes, washboards for percussion — and an occasional acoustic guitar or piano.

"Jug bands" of a similar stripe had cropped up in the American South during the depression, but skiffle served as an introduction to music making for tens of thousands of war-impoverished youths in the UK who could never have afforded proper instrumentation.

The typical skiffle song was a jug-band blues or trad-jazz standard invigorated and played on these homemade instruments; Key Colyer's Skiffle Band was the first to record in the style back in 1954, but it was Lonnie Donegan's 1956 recording of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" that established skiffle, a smash that led to a three-year skiffle craze in Britain.

During that time future members of Led Zeppelin, The Hollies, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones cut their teeth on the style, but as the rock craze replaced it and instruments became more affordable, these musicians formed rock bands based on the likes of Johnny Burnette's Rock and Roll Trio and Buddy Holly's Crickets.