Skip to main content

Billy Bragg’s new book touches upon the 1950s British phenomenon, skiffle music.

Type the word "skiffle" into a document and you might get a red squiggly line and an auto-correct suggestion of "scuffle," which is a fighting word indeed to Billy Bragg. The Essex-born singer-songwriter's entertaining new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, educates readers on a rough-and-ready form of roots music and a 1950s British phenomenon that doesn't get the respect he believes it deserves. The Globe spoke with Bragg (who plays Vancouver Folk Music Festival on July 14, Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont., on July 16 and Calgary Folk Music Festival on July 27) by phone.

With your book, it appears you're saying that John Lennon's pre-Beatles band The Quarrymen wasn't the only skiffle band ever. That will be a shock to many, won't it?

[Laughs.] I think that's partly why I wrote it, really. I think it's the great untold story, in the origins of rock and roll. I live on a sea cliff, and a guy stopped me earlier today. He was probably 10 years older than me. He had read the book and he told me what he did in the skiffle days. And I think so many people experienced it. It was a craze. It was kids grabbing hold of guitars at very early ages and having the greatest time. They went on to live their lives, but they had that moment where they played guitars and sang songs and felt connected to their own culture, in a way they hadn't before.

You write that skiffle existed in the dead ground of British pop culture, between the end of the Second World War and the rise of the Beatles. Why is skiffle in such a historical blind spot?

I think because of its connection to trad jazz, which is anathema to my generation. It was just so uncool. So, skiffle coming out of that has left people thinking that they didn't really want to go there.

You write that the thing that made skiffle cool was the prominent place of the guitar. But the guitar wasn't so foreign, was it? A lot of the blues guitarists were quite well known at the time.

Sure. But the old blues guys and the Calypsonians and the singing cowboys were outsiders. When someone like Lonnie Donegan played a guitar, it represented something new in British culture. By picking up the guitar, the British youth were rejecting their parents' culture. Skiffle was the beginning of the generation gap in my country. And it was a working-class thing.

What did Donegan represent to those kids?

He was born in Glasgow, but grew up in London. He had a cockney accent. As Van Morrison said to me in the book, people who wanted to be Elvis Presley had no chance. No British kid was going to be Elvis Presley. But you could be Lonnie Donegan. People thought, "If Donegan can sing these songs, why can't I?" Everybody who plays music needs that moment of epiphany.

What was your moment?

When I saw the Clash. I was into the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Faces. But I was 19 when I saw the Clash, and I thought, "If these kids can do it, so can I." They were the same age as me.

Do you think kids identify with music in he same way they once did?

I think we have to accept that music no longer plays a vanguard role in youth culture. The way we used music in the 20th century, it was our only social medium. It was the only way we communicated with each other. You could find in music something you identified with, or something that was yours and yours alone. I think that's gone.

You're participating in Amnesty International's Give a Home global concert series on Sept. 20, involving musicians playing people's homes in some 200 cities. Where are we at now, when it comes to activism and music?

Well, I think the Amnesty concerts will be similar to what Woody Guthrie did. Woody's guitar didn't really kill fascists. What it did was to draw people together to fight fascism. You might be working in a place where there's a lot of casual racism and sexism and xenophobia, but you go to a gig and everyone is fighting against that. You come away and think, "Okay, I'm not on my own." Music can do that.

Billy Bragg plays Hillside Festival, July 16. $85 (weekend pass, $149). Guelph Lake Conservation Area,