Like all bits of art and protest that outspoken UK rocker, author, and activist Billy Bragg commits himself too, the book Roots, Radicals, And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World comes from the heart, and comes with a purpose. Bragg’s cause this time is the enlightenment of passionate music fans who have been fed a narrative about rock and roll and the British Invasion that is light on a transformative phase. Skiffle — a high energy bit of sound that emanated from the UK’s lower class following World War II by way of New Orleans, American jazz, blues, and folk music — had a hand in the establishment of Lennon and McCartney’s friendship and in stoking their interest in music. Same as it did with Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and so many others who took the energy of skiffle and branched out with their own sounds.
In an interview with Bragg, we spoke about the importance of skiffle, its heritage and ownership, the challenges of reaching people through music in these divisive times, discovering the real America on the railway, and why Bragg, who abhors cynicism, believes this political moment is one that is ripe to inspire change.
The book is really great. It’s just super dense. I’m a musical history nerd and I really didn’t know much about Skiffle going in.
That’s great to hear because I kind of wrote it with people like you in mind, people who have a deep appreciation of the roots of music but don’t really have any cognition of skiffle on account of its sort of obscure treatment by the rock journalists in the late twentieth century.
I remember going through a music history class and they just glossed right over it. It went Elvis to the British Invasion. They act as though there’s nothing in the middle there.
Yeah. In my country, it’s… ‘oh yeah, Lonnie Donegan had a hit with ‘Rock Island Line.’ It all started there.’ It’s like the Big Bang, you know? It wasn’t a singularity. There was a number of very important… This is the first defining music of our first [post World War II] generation of teenagers. You’d think it would have a little bit more respect.