As time goes on, the 1950s becomes an increasingly fascinating place – certainly, one that has been (to date) far less mined by cultural archaeologists that the decade that followed it. One can easily set aside the thought that this is a book written by someone who is well-known in another medium because it is, simply, a brilliantly written, accessible slab of social and cultural history whose author tells the tale with a light touch that belies the very substantial groundwork he’s put in.
I’ve read a lot on this era – both primary sources and retrospective books like Pete Frame’s ‘Restless Generation’, Dave Gelly’s fantastic ‘An Unholy Row’, and Ken Colyer’s cranky autobiography ‘When Dreams Are In The Dust’ – and Bragg not only uses his sources well but has trawled very widely and drawn from some very obscure sources indeed (like Michael Moorcock’s late 50s fanzine ‘Jazz Fan’, regional newspapers, and Lonnie Donegan’s fan club brochures).
Bragg’s way with words is terrifific. There are some great turns of phrase every so often that raise a smile, and if I had any fears that there might be chunks of lefty polemics or overly laboured comparisons between skiffle and punk, these were unfounded. Yes, he makes a couple of brief references to skiffle/punk similarities, but only in passing, saving the best till the end where, by a kind of wonderful happenstance, the artist on at the 100 Club the night after its punk festival in 1976 was Ken Colyer, a confrontational, deliberately primitivist, socially awkward, anti-establishment man who found his outlet in a music that became both tribal and liberating and swept the nation over 20 years earlier – a music that he had more or less invented: skiffle.
Bragg’s book has the trajectory and dynamics of a Lonnie Donegan song, in a way – like ‘Rock Island Line’ – starting slow, setting the scene, painting a picture of a world, and gradually building up a head of stream, pulling in information and slogans and mayhem and becoming a thrilling ride for the listener/reader.
The subtitle, though, slightly undersells the content – or limits the main title (which covers the content much more accurately). Skiffle, and the youth revolution it began, is the bedrock of the book but Bragg weaves in various strands of mid to late 50s popular culture – trad jazz (the progenitor/first platform of skiffle), Teddy Boys, British rock’n’roll, the 2 Is, impresarios, variety tours, Light Entertainment broadcasting, the beginnings of the folk club boom, the beginnings of R&B – along with a dash of social spice in immigration, Aldermaston marches and the brief attempted revival of Oswald Mosely and his cronies in Notting Hill.
All of this is done with a light touch and a canny eye for good quotes, period detail and the odd pithy aside to the reader. The story rattles along and becomes a real page-turner. These kind of books are far harder to get published than you might imagine. Knowing a little about Faber & Faber, the fact that this book was being written by a ‘celeb’ with a certain cachet will have almost certainly got it over the commissioning line – if I or almost anyone else had gone to Faber with the idea of a heavyweight book on skiffle I honestly doubt it would have been accepted. In that sense, Bragg has ‘beaten the system’ – just like skiffle or punk. He was, by wonderful luck, exactly the right person to write this book. He has an empathy with the subject, an enquiring mind, a mastery of story-telling and his songwriting career has really helped with his expositions on the writing of and often fascinating background to certain songs crucial to the skiffle phenomenon – from the dam-busting ‘Rock Island Line’ to the seemingly pointless ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’. Very often, Bragg’s research or perspective will make one look at something in a different light – ‘Expresso Bongo’, for instance, transforms from a half-remembered Cliff Richard vehicle into a socially important artefact of its era. The errors I noticed were very few indeed (no book is immune!) – a couple I recall are Bragg anachronistically using the term ‘100 Club’ two or three times when he was, in fact, referring to the premises during a period when it was under different management and known by a couple of different names; and in one photo blues godfather Cyril Davies is captioned ‘Cyril Smith'(!).
One very much hopes that Bragg will turn his hand to other musical history books.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Dave Gelly’s ‘An Unholy Row’, Mick Houghton’s ‘Becoming Elektra’, my own ‘Dazzling Stranger’ – that sort of thing: books about scenes and interweaving stories from distant eras.
One thing you’ve learned
That Les Bennetts, guitarist with Les Hobeaux, was probably the first British musician to say **** on record.