Interview Exclusive: Billy Bragg chats to Port Eliot

Port Eliot Creative Director Colin Midson talks to Musician-cum-Writer Billy Bragg about his new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, on the counter-cultural revolution that the skiffle movement stirred up, giving a voice to working class British teenagers and laying the foundations for the Beatles, Bowie, punk and more. The conversation continues at the festival, in the Bowling Green stage on Saturday. Buy festival tickets here.

C: So, why skiffle?

B: The thing about skiffle is that it’s largely been forgotten by the people who are writing the history of British music. Because it was something that happened before rock ‘n’ roll it’s been largely overlooked. I thought it was time someone put into its proper context in British post war social history.

C: And how did you first became aware of skiffle as a movement?  As someone who was playing in a punk band in the 70s was someone like Lonnie Donegan – “The King of Skiffle” – even on your radar?

B: No, but I had a sixties childhood so he was sort on my radar in that sense. My Old Man’s a Dustman was a big song in my childhood – his big hit – but I wasn’t aware of his skiffle hits at that stage. By the time I was aware of him he’d become an all round entertainer.

C: And was he naff, to your mind?

B: Yeah, he was, yeah. He was up there with Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball and his Jazz band. The kind of guys who tended to turn up on Morecombe and Wise, you know.

C: And what changed your take on it?

B; I think my experience in punk rock as a 19-year-old made me look at skiffle in a different perspective. It made me realize that it was like punk – it was DIY music. It was an attempt by teenagers to take control of their own culture and I don’t think that had really happened in the UK before. In the 1990s I was invited to write something for the English Folk, Dance and Song Society and I wanted to write about skiffle so they hooked me up with a few people. It was through that that I discovered the story of Ken Colyer. And so over time I’ve picked up little things here and there about how it came together.

C: Did you get to speak to any of the protagonists at any point?

B: A lot of them are not around now unfortunately. I started writing at a time when the last of them are popping their clogs. But I spoke to Chris Barber. Chas McDevitt is still around – he wrote the first book about skiffle and his perspective was really helpful. Hilda Sims from the City Ramblers, Peggy Seeger…

One of the 60s rock stars that I managed to talk to was Van Morrison and he was really, really helpful in explaining how Lonnie Donegan opened the door to a different kind of music making.  He made the kids understand – and when I say kids I really do mean kids: Van Morrison was 12 when he heard Rock Island Line, I think McCartney was 14. Harrison was 13. Lennon was 16. It made them realize that you didn’t have to be a professional musician to make music.

C: And you didn’t have to be American as well.

B: Yeah, and I think that kind of gave that first generation of British working class teenagers the symbol by which they defined themselves against their parents. And that was the guitar.

C: it’s also becomes a British identity, a cultural identity, which was itself inspired by music from 3,000 miles away…  which is a kind of weird irony.

B:  It’s strange that isn’t it… why they should choose African-American roots music. But I think there’s always been an urge to find something more authentic than what’s presented by the mainstream. All the great youth cultures were a rejection of the mainstream …the mods, the rockers…obviously punk. They were trying to connect with something deeper. The skifflers were the first to try that.

C: As time goes on do you see the music that you’ve made, and the music that you emerged from, becoming much more part of the same story?

B: Yeah… the weird thing was that when I started making music the original Archtop guitars that had been used by skifflers were in the junk shops… and I bought a few of them. They were owned by skifflers who were now in their 30’s, with families, and who were getting rid of them, selling them on.

Right up until the mid-70s there were bands emerging that had been inspired by the movement – Dr Feelgood, Mott the Hoople, these kind of artists – but my generation – punk – who were born in the late 50s, during peak skiffle, were the first musicians in the UK who hadn’t been influenced by it. It was all new to us, so maybe that’s why we went through that DIY thing, that we reinvented everything and had to have a year zero.

C: At what point did you decide you wanted to write a book on the subject? I know you’ve written books before, but it’s very different from the life of a recording artist and a performer.

B:  Exactly because it’s completely different from the life of a recording artist and performer. When you’ve been doing it as long as I do it all becomes a bit of a circuit and you can be in danger, if you come off of the back of an album, just going straight into recording the next one. You can get stuck. After touring for Tooth & Nail, I needed a break. I needed to do something else, refocus my energies. So writing a book really appealed.

C: And did you feel well placed to write it?

B: While I knew quite a bit about skiffle I didn’t know anything at all about trad jazz, or any jazz really, so the first half of the book was all a discovery for me.  I realized that I was a good person to do that: I wanted to write a book for lay people to understand, and Americans, too. I wanted Americans to be able to pick up this book and not be blindsided by it being too parochial. So I knew that I wouldn’t only have to explain what trad jazz was in the UK but I would have to write about New Orleans too.

C: And what’s the significance of New Orleans to the story?

B: I’ve come to the conclusion that New Orleans is the most important city to the development of British pop. More than Chicago or Los Angeles or New York or Memphis. New Orleans is the key city. But I had to discover all that for myself and I really enjoyed doing that and it did exactly what I imagined it would do: cleared my mind. And I ended up making another album – the railroad album, Shine a Light – which came out of the research I was doing for the book.

C: And what did you learn most during the writing process?

B: What I found most important was the context in which the music was made. And that’s what was missing for me in the books that had been written so far. My argument in the book (and I hope it comes over) is that that first generation of British teenagers were really something special. Their experience of being born during the war and then reaching adolescence during a time of rationing really shaped what happened in the 1960s and 70s. They’re a key generation for us and a key generation for working class kids as well. So that context was really important and to bring in what was going on in popular culture at the time, in terms of film and TV and pop art. I think that’s all part of it.

C: Yes , in terms of telling the story of British pop culture, until you reach the Beatles it’s as though nothing happened…

B: …and if it did happen, that it wasn’t significant. I would argue that that’s the wrong way to approach it. If you don’t understand what happened to those guys in the 50s – whether it’s Jimmy Page or Paul McCartney or David Bowie – any of those people…

C:  …all of whom were obviously massively affected by it.
B: …they were hugely affected by it, at a very early age and I think that’s the significance of it. When I say in the book there were 30-50,000 skiflle groups at the time, they weren’t performing professionally they were just messing around in back rooms. And this is a self-generating self- empowering culture the like of which British youth had never seen.

C; People are talking a lot at the moment about the need felt by ethnic minority performers in the UK and America to feel very visible, so that young kids from similar backgrounds can think “I look like them! I can do what they’re doing.” And in a way it’s a similar sort of thing – British working class kids suddenly being visible in the culture, and a whole generation of them saying ‘I can do that!’

B: Yup. That’s the message that Donegan brings. It’s quite a revelation. As Van Morrison says to me in the book “all these British kids wanted to be Elvis but you can’t be Elvis if you’re British… but you can be Lonnie Donegan.” I think that’s why he’s so crucial. He played an absolutely pivotal role. If you talk to people of that time you understand that they really resonate with him.