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Olden Life - What was skiffle? By Andrew Roberts

Regulars | By Andrew Roberts

Lonnie Donegan

Seventy years ago, in July 1954, Lonnie Donegan recorded his version of Rock Island Line. It reached the Top Ten in the hit parade on both sides of the Atlantic. Skiffle had arrived. The term ‘skiffle’ evokes a bunch of 1950s sixth-formers in NHS glasses earnestly lamenting life on the chain gang, but it inspired countless 1960s groups. A tape survives of John Lennon singing a skiffle song, Putting on the Style, with the Quarrymen on 6th July 1957. One theory about skiffle’s origins is that it evolved from rent parties of the 1920s, where musicians played on improvised instruments to raise funds. By the early 1950s, the Yarmouth-born jazzman Ken Colyer formed a skiffle group within his band, with Alexis Korner and Anthony ‘Lonnie’ Donegan on guitar, Chris Barber on bass and his own brother Bill on washboard. In 1953, Jazz Journal urged its readers to visit the London...


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