Extra! Billy Bragg Comes to Tea…

In the late summer of last year, I received an email out of the blue from Billy Bragg.

“Hi Martin”, Billy wrote, “For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a book that seeks to put skiffle into its proper context in British cultural history. My starting point is your dad’s record collection and it ends with Ken playing at the 100 Club the night after the first punk festival held there in September 1976.” [These pictures show the posters on the back wall of the club].

club

He went on to say that Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer – a collaboration between Mike Pointon, Ray Smith and myself that presented Ken’s story as an oral biography – had been a great help, “not only giving me some insight into the British trad scene, but also helping me to understand the importance of New Orleans to both jazz and skiffle.”

Billy wanted to find some pictures that helped to highlight that this was the moment when guitars came to the fore, and the music shifted, setting the stage for the British Pop and R ’n’ B boom of the early sixties. Some were in the Ken book, but there were others left over, so I looked them out and Billy, who was in the East End for family reasons, came to tea. It was great to meet someone so passionate about the story of that time, as well as being what you hoped he’d be – a genuinely nice fellow. So we talked about the romance and inspiration of American roots music of all stripes, and sorted out the most relevant images.

A few days later Billy sent me a few of the chapters, and I was thrilled by the amount love and devotion that had gone into the book. It needed someone who was willing to put the time and effort into researching and reading widely, and in finding those who had lived through those times and still had stories to be told. I know how pleased my dad would have been to see a light shone on this period – to see the story so well recounted, placed in the context of Britain’s post-war years and the American and British music that preceded and followed. From America’s prison farms to New Orleans at the turn of the century, and forward to the birth of rock, it’s not only a remarkable musical journey but also a terrific piece of social history.

It’s a bonus that Billy comes at it from the viewpoint of a working musician, and a political one at that. Following in the footsteps of Pete Frame’s excellent The Restless Generation, Billy puts flesh on the bones of the story – he shows the wild effect that Skiffle, through Lonnie Donegan, had on the youth of Britain and America, a DIY genre that gave a whole generation the means to make their own music, while shoving aside the bland and tired-out variety shows of their parents.

Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is released on June 1st. I really recommend it. There is a lengthy excerpt [on the music player to the right] of Billy in conversation with Bob Harris at a preview of the book, which took place at Cecil Sharp House. Here’s a short extract.

lonnie

Lonnie Donegan takes centre stage in a photograph from the period, playing guitar and singing into the mic. To his right, Alexis Korner plays mandolin and Ken Colyer strums the guitar slung across his knee. To his left, Bill Colyer sits playing a washboard, while Chris Barber plucks a stand-up bass. This picture embodies a revolutionary moment in British popular music, when the guitar, for so long stuck at the back of the bandstand, an often inaudible part of the rhythm section, comes to the front and takes control. A young Pete Townshend was there to witness this paradigm shift.

The future powerhouse guitar player of the Who was just a schoolboy when he saw Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen at Acton Town Hall, west London. At the time, his father was a professional musician, playing with the Squadronaires big band. Used to the smooth, sophisticated swing played by his father, Townshend was shocked by the primitive nature of the Jazzmen and their crowd. “I was used to the tidy music of my dad’s era. It was messy. He (Colyer) was messy. The band were messy. The audience were messy.” In scenes of seeming chaos that would not have been out of place at a punk gig twenty-five years later, Townshend described how the men were drunk, wore cheap rough duffel coats, some had wet themselves and instead of wearing wrist watches, some had alarm clocks hanging around their necks.

Disorienting though these scenes must have been to the young Townshend, what made a lasting impression on him was the sight of guitarist taking control of the gig by bringing his instrument to the front of the stage. In that moment, he grasped the enormity of what was happening. “This instrument was going to change the world. For me, this was absolutely massive because my father was a saxophone player. I could see the end of my father’s world – I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye old timer and that’s exactly what happened.”

Extra. One Thing. Tuesday, November 8th.

Joe Henry and Billy Bragg, Shine A Light tour of train songs, Union Chapel last night
Joe Henry: “I can’t tell you how nice it is to be here. It’s very important for you to understand that this project is in no way a ‘nostalgia’ project – that neither one of us would of had one interest in going into a recording studio and making a record that just says “Joe and Bill like trains…” [audience laughter]. The impulse really was to reclaim some of our culture and vocabulary. For me as an American, it’s our national poetry – the folk tradition is not a dead language… you know, we take up these songs that are still relevant for the same reason that theatre companies still stage “King Lear” and “Richard III”, because they’ve got something to say to us about who we are, and where we are, and why.

I’d also like to say that when I came in this evening for our soundcheck, because our dressing room is the rector’s office, I was asked specifically not to blaspheme [audience laughter]. And as a younger man I might have bristled at such a, uh, mandate… but as a grownup, and as a writer, I was very affirmed for it to be acknowledged that words matter. That language is power. And we all know it when we hear it.”

%d bloggers like this: