Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Skiffle and Rockabilly - what did they put in the water in 1954?

Being somewhat slow on the uptake, I’ve only just realised the strange parallels between Skiffle and Rockabilly. They both got properly underway in 1954, when Elvis recorded his first tracks at Sun and Ken Colyer walked off in a huff from his own jazz band (which became the Chris Barber Jazz Band), formed the Ken Colyer Skiffle group, and released the first commercial UK Skiffle records.

The first big hits to grow out of each movement – “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins and “Rock Island Line” by Lonnie Donnegan - were recorded in late 1955 and became hits early in 1956: the former had sold over a million by mid-April and “Rock Island Line” became the first ever Gold Record debut single by a British artist.

In their earliest incarnation, both genres relied on three instruments – guitar, washboard and tea-string bass for Skiffle, and acoustic guitar, electric guitar and double bass for Rockabilly. Again, early on, both genres relied heavily on updated arrangements of earlier hits: “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “Milk Cow Blues”, “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right, Mama” for Rockabilly and a seemingly endless succession of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs for Skiffle. Of course, both forms grew out of hard-edged working class “roots” music – mainly R&B, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Bluegrass in the case of Rockabilly, and Folk, Country and Bluegrass for Skiffle.

Both musical forms produced one outstanding star who maintained his success by altering his style, while retaining elements of the genre that started it all off for them (R&R for Presley and novelty "comedy" numbers for Donnegan). Skiffle and Rockabilly saw many performers in other genres rushing to get in on the act – mainly Trad Jazzers in the UK (to be fair, Skiffle grew out of Trad) and Country artists in the US.

And both styles saw tens of thousands of youngsters start bands, thanks to the simplicity of the instrumentation and the basic nature of the music itself (barely any Rockabilly or Skiffle song required more than four chords – most got by on three).

Rockabilly and Skiffle both became successful because young folk responded viscerally to the music – record companies were always scrambling to understand what was happening.

Many of the young men who took up music because both genres were exciting and because the entry-level requirements were minimal went on the become giant figures in other musical styles.: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, Conway Twitty and Jerry Reed were just a few of the stars who went on to become big names in Pop, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Country, while John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ritchie Blackmore, Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Graham Nash, Roger Daltrey  and Jimmy Page – plus a stack of eminent Folkies - all started off in Skiffle.

While the influence of both genres was enormous, their popularity in terms of chart-hits was limited and short-lived: both almost qualify as cult musical forms.

But probably the oddest thing of all is that the artists who started the Skiffle boom can't have known about Rockabilly at the time. I suppose there may have been the odd mention of it in Melody Maker, but they wouldn't have been able to hear it on the radio. The first thing they'd have been aware of would have been Elvis's early Rock 'n' Roll hits, "Heartbreak Hotel" and "All Shook Up". Only Ken Colyer had visited the States before Lonnie Donnegan went over to promote "Rock island Line" - and Colyer's claim to fame was spending all his time in New Orleans. And what would all these Trad Jazzers have thought of Rockabilly in any case? I expect they would have been appalled!

The main difference between the genres is that while many performers tried to keep Rockabilly alive because they loved it, Skiffle acts deserted in droves as soon as the craze faded. I can only assume that the lack of amplification accounted for Skiffle’s inability to compete with the electric guitars, electric basses and drum sets required by Rock ‘n’ Roll – that, and the eventually mind-numbing repetitiveness of the form: the British R&B boom and the US Folk boom of the early Sixties eventually created Rock because the performers started writing their own material, while this didn't really happen with Skiffle. And while Rockabilly produced some sexy - even dangerous - perfomers, Skifflers tended to be a mixture of aging jazzmen, earnest, duffle-coated young lefties, and spotty little teenagers (take a gander a the singer in this video - the guitar player, 14-year old James Page from Epsom, did eventually go on to do a great deal of hands-on biological research, and a lot of chemical experimentation to boot). The music was exciting, but the performers weren't exactly heart-throbs - although Donnegan had genuine star quality.

Skiffle set the template for the 1960s British Invasion of the US charts – even more bizarre than The Beatles, the Stones and The Animals re-exporting Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley back to the States was Lonnie Donnegan re-exporting Leadbelly songs to the same market – “Rock Island Line” reached  No. 8 in the US charts in 1956. Crazy!

What really set the two genres apart was that Rockabilly produced several hundred classic recordings and a thousand more that are worth listening to, whereas there are only a handful of Skiffle records worth listening to today – notably  “Cumberland Gap” and Rock Island Line" by Lonnie Donnegan, “Don’t You Rock Me Daddio” by  The Vipers Skiffle Group, “Freight Train” by the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey, “Last Train to San Fernando” by Johnny Duncan and The Bluegrass Boys, and the great “Downbound Train” by the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group.

As for the rest, I prefer the originals.


  1. I liked that guitar solo. Seemed way ahead of his time. Any idea of his name?

  2. I'm pretty sure it's a chap called Les Bennetts playing guitar here. There's some info about him here
    : http://paulvernonchester.com/LesBennetts.htm

  3. I have always bought the line that skiffle was the poor English boys' response to all those rock discs that the US sailors used to bring in when they docked at Liverpool and London. They couldn't afford real instruments so it was tea chest and 'where's me washboard' until they had enough money to afford a drum kit, bass and electric guitars, such as the very elegant guitar that Les Bennetts is playing in your clip, which looks like one of those 50s jazz Gibsons that starts with an ES, has a few catalogue numbers after that and now sells for about £30,000.

    Last Train, Daddio, Freigh Train were on the record player through my childhood, thanks to my brother. 50 years later, they are the tunes we warm up to on piano and guitar before failing to tackle anything more complex. Great post.