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Roots, Radicals and Rockers by Billy Bragg

Roots, Radicals and Rockers by Billy Bragg
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Skiffle, the subject of Billy Bragg’s new book, is a “neglected” genre, said Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times. A stripped-down fusion of jazz, blues and folk, today it is associated mainly with “duffle coats, washboards and epic bouts of coffee-drinking” – and is surrounded by a “tang of embarrassment”. Yet in its heyday in the late 1950s, it was immensely popular, and played a crucial role in the development of British pop. As Billy Bragg points out in this “wittily written” book, John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page were “all skifflers in their youth” (though they later tended to downplay that fact). The genre’s “three-chord primitivism”, Bragg suggests, also paved the way for punk. In Roots, Radicals and Rockers, the “Bard of Barking” has produced a “first-rate work of history” that restores skiffle to its rightful place at the “fountainhead of British pop music”.

The skiffle craze was kick-started by Lonnie Donegan’s 1955 cover of Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line, said Michael Henderson in The Times. Donegan, a jazz guitarist, recorded the song almost as an afterthought, but it became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and “opened a door” through which the “young and voiceless” marched. Having previously been “force-fed” music by their parents, British teenagers now started buying “guitars by the lorryload” and forming bands. At the height of the craze, up to 50,000 bands were “hammering away in youth clubs and church halls”, said Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times. Skiffle was, as Bragg points out, the “first music for teenagers by teenagers” – and it played a crucial role in the growth of modern youth culture. Full of “fascinating digressions”, and written with an “archivist’s sense of mission”, as well as a “musician’s knowledge”, Roots, Radicals and Rockers illuminates a lost world.