Without skiffle there might have been no Quarrymen and hence no Beatles. Seen in retrospect on television, skiffle can seem entertaining yet quaint, and yet before pelvic-thrusting took over on the charts, skiffle was incredibly popular.
The term ‘skiffle’ had been used in the US in the 1930s to describe the blending of blues and boogie woogie. In the 1950s in the UK it referred to an improvised amalgam of jazz and country blues, often played on simple instruments which could be made out of household implements.
And it was simply HUGE, with Lonnie Donegan alone racking up three Number One’s – the best known being Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bed Post Overnight).
To understand the tremendous impact skiffle had on Britain’s teenagers, it’s necessary to bear in mind the fairly dreary state of pop music in the early 50s.
It consisted for the most part of slick American ballads performed by slick cabaret artistes in bow-ties or evening dresses; British ballads which were, if anything, even sicklier than the American ones; and British ‘novelty’ songs like How Much Is That Doggy In The Window? and Hernando’s Hideaway, which invariably had banal lyrics and were, in fact, the dying remnants of what had once been a healthy and spirited Music Hall tradition.
Skiffle was not closely comparable to rockabilly; among many other differences, it was more a deliberately amateurish recreation of a folk idiom than a rush of blood to the vitals.
Nor were most of the vaguely academic revivalists remotely similar to the newly emerging American rockers: they would probably have been disdainfully amused had anyone suggested they were.
It was the loose, rhythmic vitality of skiffle that was distantly equivalent to rockabilly – that, and the fact that anyone who could find three strummable chords on a cheap guitar could have a go for himself.
Boys who couldn’t afford instruments made their own. Wooden tea chests soon became quite scarce and, by the end of 1956, newspapers were actually reporting a national washboard shortage!
Before Rock & Roll crossed the Atlantic the skiffle craze was already spreading out from the jazz club circle of its instigators. As the first shock-waves of rock arrived, Lonnie Donegan was bounced into national prominence and seemingly every street in Britain suddenly boasted an amateur skiffle group.
Although skiffle is often defined by its instruments, its attitude may be its greatest gift to rock & roll. There was an eccentricity and humour and feeling for the extraordinariness of ordinary people at the heart of Donegan’s skiffle which inspired The Beatles and countless other bands in the late 50s and early 60s.
Skiffle would be ultimately trampled by the very beat bands it spawned.