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Microphone Month 4

Skiffle

Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as slang for “rent party,” pianist Hersel Thomas (died 1926) is purported to be the first to have used the the word skiffle to describe the music played at a house rent party (also called “skuffle” music). Having its origins in New Orleans in the early 1920s, skiffle is a form of American folk music infused with jazz and blues influences. Skiffle is performed with a combination of conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo, along with homemade instruments modeled after traditional African instruments including washboard, tea chest bass, kazoo, jug, cigar-box fiddle, comb and paper, etc. The term skiffle was also used to describe jug-band music.

In the 1950s and 60s, skiffle became the foundation of what was to become the music explosion known as the British Invasion (1964-66). It was unwittingly started by Glasgow-born singer/banjoist Lonnie Donnegan, a former member of Chris Barber’s Dixieland band. His beefed-up version of the Leadbelly song, “Rock Island Line” and the novelty tune, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” became international hits. Meanwhile, young Britons were delighted with the idea that you could have a hit song with a style of music that could be played on a cheap guitar, a washboard scraped with thimbles, and a tea-chest bass.

One of those young Brits was Mick Jagger, a member of the Barber-Colyer Skiffle Band, although he maintains that he really didn’t really enjoy skiffle music. Other well-known British skiffle groups include The Gin Mill Skiffle Group and The Quarry Men, whose roster had included musical unknowns; John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney, who, incidentally, split off to form a marginal band you may have heard of called The Beatles.

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