In 1956, the hottest performer in Great Britain’s pop music scene was a transplanted banjo player from Scotland named Lonnie Donegan. His hit recording, a rendition of American folk singer Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line,” triggered a tidal wave of amateur and semi-professional groups playing what was known as “skiffle” music – American folk, blues, and country tunes played on homemade guitars, washboards, and basses made from old tea chests. For the next two years, the skiffle craze, as it came to be known, enveloped Britain, giving rise to many of the rock groups that would instigate the British Invasion in the 1960s. But how – and especially why – did this happen?
Strangely enough, the skiffle craze started in the small British coffee houses where traditional jazz – not folk or blues – was being played. Historians credit a jazz trumpet player named Ken Colyer for starting skiffle. Colyer was an inveterate fan of New Orleans jazz, especially the legendary Crescent City cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver, who gave Louis Armstrong his first break during the 1920s. During a trip to Canada, Colyer and his brother Bill acquired a load of 78 rpm records by Huddie Ledbetter, the American ex-convict known as Lead Belly. In 1949, the Colyer brothers formed a jazz band in Cranford, a small village on the banks of the River Crane, a small tributary of the Thames River just outside of London. The Crane River Jazz Band, as it was called, played traditional New Orleans jazz, which was just becoming a popular trend in England. During the intermissions (or what were called “intervals” in England), Colyer would play 78s from his record collection on a portable phonograph, giving brief mini-lectures about each song, including Lead Belly songs like “Rock Island Line,” “Stewball,” “Jack O’Diamonds,” and others. The audiences got to liking these segments so much that the non-horn players in the Colyer group started jamming on their own versions of the songs, usually on banjo, guitar, and bass.
When banjo player Tony Donegan joined the band in 1952, the “interval” sessions expanded to feature songs by other American folk and blues acts, including Josh White, the Carter Family, and Woody Guthrie. Donegan soon changed his name to Lonnie, in honor of blues singer Lonnie Johnson, and after Colyer left the band, Donegan took over the folk jam sessions. The music was called “skiffle” after Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys. Burley was a Chicago-based piano player who learned the term while performing at Chicago rent parties in the 1920s, where musicians would gather around a piano in an apartment building to help raise money to pay the rent.
In 1954, Donegan’s skiffle group participated in a recording session with the Chris Barber Jazz Band, during which Donegan recorded two skiffle numbers, “Rock Island Line” and “John Henry.” The two tracks were issued as a single early in 1956 and the record took off, both in Britain as well as the United States. Britain’s pop music scene at the time was dominated by limp, pop vocal novelties, but Donegan’s energetic performance and the tales he told in the two songs sparked the imaginations of British teenagers about the romantic American folk frontier.
Almost immediately, sales of guitars quintupled and skiffle groups sprang up by the hundreds; an estimated 800 in the London area alone. Among them were the Quarrymen, a group started by a Liverpool lad named John Lennon, who was soon joined by two other skiffle-mad guitarists, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Even the Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, got started in a skiffle band, then using his given name, Richy Starkey.
Other skiffle groups featured future British Invasion stalwarts: Gerry Marsden (Gerry & the Pacemakers), Van Morrison (Them), Brian Jones (the Rolling Stones), Roger Daltrey (the Who), Ray Davies (the Kinks), Freddie Garrity (Freddie & the Dreamers), Wayne Fontana (the Mindbenders), plus Joe Cocker, Jeff Beck, and others all got their start playing skiffle. In this clip from 1957, we see a 14-year-old Jimmy Page, lead guitarist for Led Zeppelin, playing in a skiffle band on a BBC talent showcase.
The skiffle craze shot up like a flare but also decayed quickly since no new songs were being created and the public quickly got weary of the steady diet of the same adapted folk songs. By that time, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll had permeated the British music scene and many of the musicians who got into performing through skiffle turned to electric guitars and rockabilly. But if it wasn’t for Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, they might never have picked up a guitar in the first place. Paul McCartney later said, “We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. Lonnie Donegan was the man.” Elton John said of Donegan, “He was the first person I ever saw on British television who played something different.”
Despite the influence he had on primary stars of the British Invasion, Lonnie Donegan has never been considered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and today is a forgotten figure. But his popularization of skiffle music, using traditional folk music sources, shows what a little ingenuity, imagination, and drive can accomplish.