Skiffle: A New Genre in Folk Music

  December 20, 2023   Read time 4 min
Skiffle: A New Genre in Folk Music
The British folk scene was thriving by midcentury, fueled by a mix of traditional and modern singers, mostly from Britain and the United States. Through the promotional energies of Alan Lomax, Ewan MacColl, and Peter Kennedy there were numerous performances on BBC radio and television, as well as on concert stages.

Much of this musical combination came together in the form of skiffle music, an odd British hybrid that captured public attention for a few years. American jazz had come to England in earlier decades, but became particularly popular following World War II; traditional (or trad) jazz, based on the “original” New Orleans style, had developed a strong following. The term skiffle had been used in the United States in the 1920s as another term for a house party with jazz, and in 1925 there was a Chicago Skiffle jazz group; a few years later Paramount Records issued a sampler Hometown Skiffle record, with Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others. Bands led by Ken Colyer and Chris Barber, with Lonnie Donegan the banjo player first with Colyer then Barber, led the way.

In 1952 Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen formed an offshoot, which his brother Bill suggested should be called a skiffle group. They were influenced by the songs and stylings of Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, blues man Lonnie Johnson, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, and Woody Guthrie. It took a few more years for the sound to catch on. In April 1957 a large concert was held at Royal Festival Hall, billed as “London’s First Big Skiffle Session.” Leading the way were Colyer, Alexis Korner, Chas McDevitt, and Donegan. McDevitt has written that at “one point in 1957, it was estimated that there were between 30,000 and 50,000 groups in the British Isles.


The sale of guitars was booming and it was reported that more music shops than jewellers were being broken into.” Skiffle clubs quickly opened, and skiffle records were very popular. The Chris Barber Jazz Band, with Donegan, in 1954 had recorded the album New Orleans Joys, which included the songs “Rock Island Line” and “John Henry.” In 1956 the single of “Rock Island Line” was very successful in both Britain and the United States, leading to Donegan quickly becoming a major recording star. For the next few years skiffle dominated the music charts, with Donegan alone having 30 hit records. BBC radio launched the Saturday Skiffle Club, which lasted for 61 weeks.

Skiffle’s appeal was broad indeed. Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl joined the bandwagon. Together they created the Ramblers, with Shirley Collins, Peggy Seeger, Pete’s half-sister and newly arrived from the United States, and others. They issued one album, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers, in 1956, They also made 14 one-hour programs for Granada TV. Lomax considered skiffle to be a healthy musical movement, since it would hopefully lead to a greater interest in traditional British songs. “Now it is noticeable that the skifflers are beginning to show interest in other songs than jailhouse ditties and bad man ballads,” he wrote in 1957.

“I have the greatest confidence in the world that their mastery of their instruments will increase, that they will get tired after a while of their monotonous two-beat imitation of Negro rhythm and that, in looking around, they will discover the song-tradition of Great Britain. This tradition, in melodic terms, is probably the richest in Western Europe.” Initially based in youth clubs and coffee bars, dance halls and theaters, skiffle reached a broader audience in 1957 with the launching of the BBC TV program SixFive Special, which featured live groups.

The Skiffle Cellar now opened in London, featuring the top skiffle and jazz bands, as well as Americans Jack Elliott and Derrol Adams, Peggy Seeger, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group traveled to the United States in 1957 and even appeared on the popular Ed Sullivan TV show. Lonnie Donegan, however, was the most popular performer on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike rock and roll, which had an aura of rebellion, skiffle was considered safe by the establishment. Indeed, Brian Bird, author of Skiffle: The Story of Folk Song with a Jazz Beat (1958), was a country clergyman who believed that “Skiffle has achieved a genuine social significance, and Skifflers have become the purveyors of the people’s music in all its glory.”

He thought skiffle had an assured future, but this was not to be; its popularity waned by 1958. “Skiffle’s life was short but it was, without doubt, the foundation upon which the next two decades of British popular music was built,” concludes historian Michael Brocken. Some skiffle musicians continued to perform folk music, while many others preferred rock and roll. “With this hybrid of African-American blues, Anglo-American folk, and traditional jazz, many British performers and audiences were apparently also exposed to a range of traditional American and British material for the first time,” ethnomusicologist Britta Sweers has concluded.

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