Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the Skiffle movement, which was Britain’s late-1950s-early-1960s parallel to North America’s Folk Revival. Like US teens and twenty-somethings who abandoned the Fabians and Bobby Vintons for the more authentic sounds of the Weavers and Leadbelly, young Brits in the late 1950s were starving for music they could get their teeth into. When they could get ahold of American folk vinyl, which was rare, they performed it as authentically as they could, sometimes even imitating the Southern drawl of certain artists. Across the country, they busked, played coffeehouses and pubs, and even held something like Hootenannies.
In addition to imitating American folk acts, these young artists drew on early-1900s Brit folk traditions by incorporating washboards, rhythms, and other elements that had been used by itinerant street bands of the early 1900s. The raucous and enthusiastic new music, sung with a mix of American and British elements took the name “Skiffle” from the earlier form. I sincerely believe that most U.S. Folkies of that era, transplanted to the streets of England and Ireland would have been able to relate to the sounds that were being produced. However, that’s not what got onto the recordings of that era.
When the movement became so strong that the British recording industry noticed, they insisted on making it more “commercial,” often adding elements that made/make them distasteful to American Folk lovers, including overproduction, orchestral or swing-style arrangements, extraneous key changes, intrusive bridges, etc. If you’ve ever seen The Buddy Holly Story and remember the scene in which a Nashville recording studio ruins “That’ll Be the Day” by trying to make it sound acceptable to Country audiences of the era, you’ll get the general idea.
In addition, one of the most popular “Skiffle” recording artists in the UK had a reputation for plagiarism that “put off” the North American Folk community. So the cross-fertilization between (authentic, street) Skiffle and Folk Revival that could have brought another dimension to each form never happened.
Instead, amateur Skiffle musicians, like the Quarrymen band formed by teenage John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, kept searching for authentic, visceral sounds, which they found in the works of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, and Buddy Holly. True, as soon as “Love Me Do” broke on the charts, Brit teens by the thousands went from washboards to electric guitars, but Skiffle didn’t die, as much as it evolved – rapidly – into what we later came to call “Brit Rock.” In addition, current modern “stomp band” and Celtic groups like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers still borrow certain Skiffle elements.
In a recent discussion with an ancient (my age) English folksinger, I told him I wanted to write something about Skiffle that would help my readers appreciate the movement. In that conversation, I asked him if he could point me to any Skiffle recordings that wouldn’t make the average North American’s skin crawl (due to the cheesy overproduction, etc.). He said he couldn’t. That said, I’ll still be keeping an eye out for good examples.
Then this past weekend, while painting the kitchen, I played most of a 6-CD set that supposedly captured the “Folk” era, what I would tend to call “Folk Revival.” What I realized was that, when I was a youngster listening to reasonably authentic Folk musicians on LPs, much of the “Folk-inspired” music that made it to Top-40 radio had been recorded by record producers who thought they could make it more “commercial” by adding overproduction, orchestral or swing-style arrangements, extraneous key changes, intrusive bridges, etc.
In other words, I’m an American boy who cut my musical teeth on Folk Revival music, and half the songs in the “Folk” collection made my skin crawl. These include any number of great songs that I knew by the original singer, but which had been covered/ruined by some plastic pop star whose label was trying to capitalize on the “Folk craze.” No, Fabian never covered “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but that should give you the general idea.
When I see Folk music performed authentically live, the audience is almost always very receptive, even if they didn’t know what they were getting into when they came out. Because it poses the fewest cultural barriers of any Western music form, Folk music reaches more people more effectively on the first hearing than any other genre of music. But when I try to talk about Folk music with people who didn’t live through the era, their opinions are generally colored by the cheesiest, worst examples they’ve heard on oldies stations or heard lampooned in movies like the otherwise great That Thing You Do. That’s one reason that Folk-influenced singers of the 1980s and 1990s started calling themselves singer-songwriter (the current favorite euphemism is “Americana”). Nowadays, the stigma seems to have faded somewhat, but there are still “snickers” in some circles when the genre is mentioned.
I’m not saying it was all great or that it was all authentic, just that there is a tendency among people who want to be thought of as “cool” or “hip” to throw out the “baby with the bathwater.” As though we didn’t know that some of what was going on was “hokey,” even back then. The movie Like a Mighty Wind, which skewers some of the conventions of Folk Revival, can’t hold a candle to Smothers Brothers’ and the Limeliters’ constant ribbing of their own pretentious contemporaries.
Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Noel (Paul) Stookey, John Hartford, and countless others of that era wrote and performed gutsy, authentic songs that – performed properly today – still ring true and touch hearts. The best songs just didn’t get on the radio as often as cheesy “commercialized” stuff you’re likely to hear in collections today.
Gee, I wonder how much of that last sentence applies to the home-grown UK Skiffle stuff that didn’t get on the radio? I’ll keep my ear out. 🙂