What’s your first thought when you hear the word “skiffle”? A word that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize? Before reading Billy Bragg’s history of the not firmly defined musical genre, my first thought was always Lonnie Donegan’s novelty song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight,” which I probably first heard on the Dr. Demento radio show. I knew the Beatles started as a skiffle band, but more or less thought skiffle was something young musicians did until they figured out how to make girls think of sex.
Roots, Radicals and Rockers directed my attention to Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Frankie & Johnny,” to which I direct your attention—it has to be the most sexual song of England’s 1950s, and accordingly, inspired hundreds of British teenagers to take up their first guitars. And now I get skiffle.
In Bragg’s history, skiffle is a long, cylindrical magnet that stretches from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, attracting moments in history from the dawn of the American railroad to the explosion of post-war British youth culture. It’s a feast of learning.
Bragg’s voice is conversational, but the conversation is business-casual, not as with, say, Sarah Vowell’s voice—her readers are friends, Bragg’s readers are co-workers.
And if you’ve never heard “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly—and apparently that’s the proper spelling of his name, not “Leadbelly” or “LeadBelly”—listen to that, too. Most of rock music, including your favorite punk song, comes from it. I would not have realized that without Bragg’s book. (I also didn’t know what the Midnight Special was, and now I do.) –Jim Woster (Faber & Faber, faber.co.uk)