Billy Bragg’s new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, is a history of skiffle—an art form that was looked down upon when Bragg himself began to play music, in the 1970s. But as Bragg explained a few days ago, in a fascinating talk at the Library of Congress, skiffle was England’s first teenage subculture—a working-class, DIY youth cult that set the stage not only for the British Invasion but for punk. It’s ironic, if not especially odd, that Bragg, a member of the first generation of British rockers who owed little or nothing to the skiffle craze, should end up writing about its influence.
“As pop became profound in the 60s, artists who had learned their chops playing skiffle tended to leave it out of their biographies,” Bragg writes in the book’s introduction. “If you wanted to be taken seriously, better to claim you were initially inspired by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly rather than Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey. Thus skiffle became a bit of an embarrassment for Britain’s sixties rock royalty, like an awkward photo from a school yearbook, a reminder of shabby realities of postwar, pre-rock Britain. Even when credit was given, skiffle often found itself edited out in the search for a snappier sound bite. Take George Harrison’s famous quote about how his band was influenced by the blues: ‘No Lead Belly, no Beatles.’ What Harrison actually said was: ‘If there were no Lead Belly there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.’ ”
Among musicians who grew up with the music, Van Morrison has been one of the very few to give it its due.
I watched Bragg’s talk the other night, then hopped over to Bragg’s website and saw that he was playing in New York City on Tuesday. Naturally, the show was sold out. But just before sound check, I walked over to Bragg’s hotel for a pot of tea (Earl Grey for me, mint for the author) and a chat about the book. This was a treat: I’ve been listening to Bragg’s music since I was a teenager, and spent much of the money I had then seeing him live. (I’m not the only one. The Paris Review’s editor, Lorin Stein, saw Bragg play the 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C., on the Back to Basics tour. It was Lorin’s first rock show.)
Bragg touched on a few of the stories he’d told at the Library of Congress. (The remarkable story of Ken Colyer, an English trumpeter who joined the Merchant Marine just to make it to New Orleans, only to find himself sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, on his way to Australia, was new to me.) But the conversation itself weaved in and out, going—as the best conversations tend to go—in any number of other directions. Read More