Soho Skifflers

By Antony Clayton

When a handful of British jazz players and fans of American music first heard the folk and blues records that were brought across the Atlantic along with early rock ‘n’ roll records they became infatuated with the simple emotional music of artists such as Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.  A number of these British enthusiasts attempted to emulate the raw performances of American folk-blues, covering some of the standards and later writing songs in a similar style.  Players were drawn from disparate sources including those involved, from the 1940s, in the British revival of New Orleans-style jazz (originally popular from 1885 to 1914), members of the folk song movement and aficionados of rural and urban blues.  The rough-and-ready hybrid musical form that emerged became known as “skiffle” - a word of unknown origin. 

As the precursor of many similar cyclical movements in pop music’s history, skiffle enjoyed a fairly brief period of popularity and influence that lasted around two years from its explosive emergence in early 1956.  Most significantly, it encouraged many young men to have their first stab at writing simple songs and performing them in public. 

Instrumentation was similar to that of the New Orleans ‘Spasm Bands’ playing at the beginning of the twentieth century and the black Memphis bands of the 1930s.  This proved an important factor in popularising the music amongst young people emerging from the austerity of post-war Britain , as skiffle could be played on basic homemade instruments.  Cheap acoustic guitars or banjos were frantically strummed, augmented by one-string tea-chest basses with a broom handle neck.  Percussion was provided by kitchen washboards, rhythmically rasped and struck by thimble-clad fingers.  Comb and lavatory paper kazoos could be used for basic musical accompaniment.  Skiffle was based around simple chords that served largely as rhythmic support for the vocals, frequently sung in imitative mid-Atlantic accents.  Many of the male performers adopted a ‘Bohemian’ appearance, wearing baggy jumpers and sandals whilst cultivating navy-style beards.

By 1957 thousands of skiffle bands had formed and their primitive music could be heard in bars and halls around the country.  In London the venues in which they chose to play were those in which many of their members had first met - the coffee bars of Soho .

One of the performers on the nascent skiffle scene recalls the music’s gradual takeover of Soho :

 “There was always a tradition of live music in coffee bars.  To give the customer the impression of being in Italy or Spain, a guest guitar player would be featured to blend in with the overall décor…The Moulin Rouge in Hanway Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, had a Spanish guitarist, Tony, who would serenade the young shop assistants with ‘Arrivederci Roma’ while they sipped their espresso coffee.”  These established musicians were soon displaced by the influx of skiffle players.  “It would start off so innocently; a young guitar player would ask the manager if he could sing a couple of songs, other friends or the occasional customer would turn up the following night with a guitar and within days another group had been created.”   

By 1956 a new generation of coffee bars had opened that offered an informal environment for the enjoyment of live music, often performed in a tiny cellar with no stage, where the proximity of the musicians and a communal atmosphere led to an exciting feeling of intimate involvement in a shared musical experience.  Blues and jazz standards, folk songs, calypsos, popular hits and eventually rock ‘n’ roll tunes were often played in these venues in a skiffle style.  The rapid expansion of this live music scene in coffee bars is largely due to the success of one of the earliest exponents of skiffle.    

In 1953 Lonnie Donegan (Anthony James Donegan) was a member, together with trombonist Chris Barber, of the revivalist band Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.  During intervals in the band’s gigs a small offshoot group evolved with the intention of playing skiffle music for fun.  This consisted of Donegan on banjo, Colyer on guitar and vocals and Alexis Korner on guitar or mandolin, with Barber on bass and Bill Colyer on washboard; probably the first such group to perform live on a regular basis in Britain .  Alexis Korner was a regular in the Soho jazz clubs and also had a deep love of the blues.  He was to be one of the earliest performers at the London Skiffle Centre, a room above the Round House pub in Wardour Street at the corner of Brewer Street , where, in 1955, guitarist Bob Watson established a venue for the burgeoning skiffle and blues scene.  Watson’s musical partner Cyril Davies, one of Britain ’s great blues figures, also performed there regularly.

This page was added by Tim Devitt on 30/03/2010.

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