Glossary entry for
skiffle

From Steve Turner's Too Late to Stop Now (pg 24-25):

In 1956, when Van was ten years old, Lonnie Donegan prompted the British "skiffle" craze with his top ten hit "Rock Island Line". The appeal of skiffle was that it was simple and inexpensive to play. All that was needed was a Spanish guitar, a snare drum, a stand-up bass made from a broom handle attached to an empty tea-chest, and two chords.

Skiffle held an additional appeal for Van, because Donegan was popularizing the strange music that his father had been listening to for many years. "Rock Island Line" had been written by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, who had become one of Van's favourite blues singers. "What I connected to was that I had been hearing Leadbelly before that, so when Donegan came along I thought everybody knew about it", Van has said. "Consequently I think I was really lucky to grow up at that time and hear what I heard then".

[...]

The following year he formed his first group with friends from around Hyndford Street. Next-door neighbor Walter Blakely played washboard, Billy Ruth played guitar, John McLean played tea-chest bass, and Gil Irvine played a home-made wind instrument they christened the "zobo". They called themselves as the Sputniks after the newly-launched Russian satellite, and began to play at Women's Institute meetings, school concerts and youth clubs. Like most skifflers they culled their material from what they heard being played by the new stars of skiffle, such as Donegan and Chas McDevitt.


Some biographical information on Lonnie Donnegan:

Lonnie Donegan was a very influential member of the pop music scene in the United Kingdom in the 50's and 60's, and is best known as the individual who launched the skiffle movement.

He was born Anthony Donegan in Glasgow, Scotland in 1931. He learned to play a guitar and became a singer. He sang and played in Ken Colyer's group and in Chris Barber's Jazz Band in the early to mid-50's. Donegan was a great admirer of country, folk, and blues music from the United States, to such an extent that he changed his name to Lonnie as a tribute to bluesman Lonnie Johnson.

Between sets he would play onstage using a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar. He gave the impression that anyone could do it, and had a lot of fun. He used the musical legacy of artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to come up with song ideas. This style came to be known as skiffle music, a style originated by Lonnie Donegan. Successful songs included "Cumberland Gap", "Gambling Man", and "My Old Man's A Dustman".

In 1956 Lonnie had a huge hit with "Rock Island Line", which reached number eight on both the USA and UK charts. Send-ups of the song were recorded by Jim Dale in the UK and Stan Freberg in the USA. "Lost John" was a minor hit on the USA charts in the same year.

Lonnie Donegan's skiffle music was very influential on younger musicians who would become prominent in the music world in the years to come. He put more than 30 songs in the top 30 on the UK charts from 1958 to 1962, and became a favorite on the early pop music TV shows in the UK, such as "6.5 Special" and "Oh Boy". A song that had been a top ten hit in the 20's for Ernest Hare & Billy Jones, "Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?", was re-done by Lonnie as "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor [On The Bedpost Overnight]?" and was released in March, 1959. Two years later it went to number five on the USA charts. He has exercised his considerable discernment in business affairs, such as when he purchased the copyright to the Moody Blues' "Knights In White Satin" in the 60's.

Among the many artists who cited the influence of Lonnie's music on theirs were the Beatles, and when they rose to popularity in the 60's, Lonnie's popularity itself went into decline. He began to play the cabaret circuit. He had a profound influence on others as well, such as Dave Cousins of the Strawbs. His comeback LP in 1977 served to show how he had affected such pop music performers as Brian May of Queen, Ringo Starr, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, Rory Gallagher, Elton John, Ron Wood, and Albert Lee. Another album released in 1978, Sundown, did not fare as well.

Lonnie Donegan has suffered heart attacks in recent years but the "King of Skiffle" continues to work.

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