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Billy Bragg explores skiffle, a forgotten music genre

Last Updated Jul 16, 2017 at 8:20 am PDT

Photo courtesy Faber Social)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – One of the headliners at this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival can add a new title to his resume: published author.

Billy Bragg has released his first book, “Roots, Radicals and Rockers.” Subtitled “How Skiffle Changed The World,” the singer-songwriter tells the story of a now largely forgotten genre.

NEWS 1130’S John Ackermann spoke with Billy Bragg in Vancouver. 

Vancouver’s Folk Music Festival is turning 40 this year.  It’s an event you’ve played before.  In fact, I saw you there in 2003.  How does it feel to be back here?

Always feels good to be at Vancouver Folk Festival.  The great thing about folk audiences around the world is that they’re always interested in topical songs and Vancouver has been at the forefront of it.  I’ve had some great years here.  In 1989, Pete Seeger came up to me in the chow tent and said he’s going to sing The Internationale in recognition of the Tiananmen Square protesters and [asked] would I like to sing the English version as part of the thing.  I said, ‘It’s so archaic, Pete.  Don’t make me sing that.’  So he paid me to write some new words, which I did do, and as a result of that, my version of The Internationale, in new words, are now in The Little Red Songbook, the IWW Little Red Songbook.  Thanks to Pete and the Vancouver Folk Festival.

Back in 2003 when I saw you, the Iraq War was dominating the news.  Today, of course, we live in the age of Trump.  How do the times inform the work that you do?

Well, they’re coming at us very fast, aren’t they?  (laughs)  You know, it’s Trump and Brexit, you have to remember, in the UK we’re dealing with that as well.  I think for a topical songwriter, the Internet now gives you the opportunity to write, record, and make something available very, very quickly.  I’ve just started dropping songs, actually.  Last week, I put out my first new song for a couple of years called The Sleep of Reason, which is my reflection on the events of 2016. And I’ve got another one lined up for next month which addresses the issue of climate change.  So, I think, rather than wait for albums to come out, you have the opportunity now to just put out songs whenever they’re ready and that’s what I intend to do over the next few months.

It seems the world is growing increasingly isolated, at least parts of the West.  You mentioned Brexit and the UK, there’s of course the US and Trump.  How do we fight that?

Well, I think we fight it by encouraging people to be more open-minded and less insular.  I think America and the UK are both, I mean, what you might call [in a] midlife crisis where the, sort of, central power seems to be moving away from where it was for most of the postwar period.  And for the British, I think they find it difficult sitting at a table with 27 other nations.  It’s clear that our Foreign Secretary feels like he’s part of somebody else’s empire when he sits down.  He doesn’t like that.  I think we in the UK just have to encourage ourselves to see ourselves as we really are, and not to keep looking back to the days of empire.  And, if I might just say, it’s not helped by foreign countries having our monarch on their money and stuff like that.

Fair enough!  Switching gears a little bit, Billy.  You’re out with your first book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers:  How Skiffle Changed The World.  Why this topic for your first book?

Well, it’s actually something I’ve always been interested in.  I was just thinking about what might I do before I put out my next record, so writing a book just seemed like an interesting challenge.  Skiffle is something that isn’t really been looked at… even in the UK.  I doubt many of your listeners know what it is.  It’s a form of music that existed in the UK just before rock n’ roll.  It’s like a roots music, led by a guy named Lonnie Donegan who had a hit with Rock Island Line in 1956.  And, so I wanted to explore it myself, really out of my own interest, but I also felt writing a book was a bigger challenge than just making another record and going on another tour.  So, for all those reasons, really, I set to write.

From what I’ve read about the book, you sort of draw a straight line from skiffle to the start of British punk.  How do you do that?

Well, skiffle was very much a DIY. music.  The musicians were playing old acoustic guitars and they were using washboards, often their mother’s washboard, and making a bass out of a large, what we call tea chest, which is exactly what it sounds like, a chest which you take loose tea in, stick in broom handle and a piece of twine and making a ‘boom, boom, boom’ noise and playing three chords.  I mean, you really only need three chords to play Lonnie Donegan’s entire repertoire.  So, in that sense, you know, it was a DIY. music and one of the most powerful slogans from punk rock was, ‘Here’s three chords now form a band.’  So, it was accessible in that way, but more importantly than that, it was a movement that said you didn’t need to be a musician to make music.  It was very empowering of young people, particularly that first generation of British teenagers after the war who had grown up with the rationing and the shadow of the war.  They kind of came of age and the way they chose to do that was by adopting the guitar.  Donegan was the first British artist to get in the charts playing the guitar and that kind of started the whole guitar-centric period of British pop music that dominated the world really in the early 1960s.

And of course providing plenty of inspiration to yourself and your generation.

Sure. It was 60 years ago this month that Paul McCartney met John Lennon at a church fete in Liverpool where Lennon’s skiffle band were playing and McCartney turned up and promptly joined the band.  So, its ramifications in the 1960s were massive.