The history of Skiffle music is clouded by myth and the facts are obscure and hazy but if you think on back to the town of New Orleans as the 20th century began you may very well see the start of this story.
Pick a Bale O’ Cotton.
New Orleans was a city bursting with music, different styles all mixed together and out of these came new forms of music, Jazz mixed with the Blues and Negro folk now also added folk, roots and Country music and Skiffle music was born.
Skiffle was originally a slang name for a Rent Party but it also became the name of this new music. More traditional instruments were often used; a fiddle, an acoustic guitar or a banjo but the basic sound of Skiffle and the poor life of the black folks who performed it meant homemade instruments were often used too; jugs, a tea chest bass, cigar box, musical saw, washboard and a comb ‘n’ paper kazoo.
In 1925 the term Skiffle was first heard used as the name of a band, on record by Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. Often Skiffle was used to describe Country Blues music but Ma Rainy kicked the ball back into play by using the term Skiffle to describe her songs to a rural audience. The roots of Skiffle lay in Blues and Jazz, many musicians contributed to these roots as this style of music progressed. One fellow helped to form these roots, his lyrical delivery was obviously the Blues but it could also just as easily be called true Folk music too this fella was Huddie Leadbelly.
Huddie Leadbelly sang Blues based Gospel and Folk songs, songs about racism, women, liquor, prison, work songs, cattle herding songs, dancing songs and even cowboy songs. Rock Island Line, Pick a Bail Of Cotton, House Of The Rising Sun, Bring Me Li’l Water Silvy, Good Morning Blues, Take This Hammer and Midnight Special.
By the 1940s the term Skiffle was all but gone from the music of America but if you headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain in 1954 you would have heard Ken Colyer’s new band start the whole fantastical thing over again....
Fans of Traditional Jazz naturally dug Skiffle but it also coincided with the dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the 2 became unquestionably linked in Britain. Every kid seemed to play washboard and every youth club had it’s own Skiffle group. Big names in the revival of this music took the stage; from Tennessee Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys and from Britain, Chas McDevitt, Bob Cort, The Coffee Bar Skifflers, The Hallelujah Skiffle Group, Nancy Whiskey, Cranes Skiffle Group, The City Ramblers Skiffle Group, Dickie Bishop And His Sidekicks, The Vipers Skiffle Group and the king of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan .....
Cumberland Gap.....Cumberland Gap....
The Vipers Skiffle Group were the most successful Skiffle outfit, after Lonnie Donegan, and they hit the charts a number of times as a Skiffle group from 1956 till 1957. Their enthusiasm and raw delivery of song made them the Punks of the British Skiffle movement.
In London Town in the spring months of 1956, a trio of vocalists and guitarists named Wolly Whyton, Johnny Martyn and Jean Van den Bosch got together. Tony Tolhurst on bass and John Pilgrim on washboard joined in the summer months. The famous 2I’s Coffee Bar down Old Compton Street secured gigs for this band and the first British Rock ‘n’ Roll star Tommy Steele was at the 2I’s too, to perform and sit in. In September of 1956 and The Vipers Skiffle Group auditioned at Abbey Road studios for George Martin of Parlophone Records and they were signed up.
Come October of 1956 the first record from the Vipers Skiffle Group was released, called Ain’t You Glad , along with a Leadbelly song called Pick a Bail of Cotton but it was their 2nd release that made waves. Early in 1957 Don’t Rock Me Daddio hit number 10 on the UK Single Charts. Rivalry raised its head between the great Lonnie Donegan and this band of Skiffle misfits as Don’t You Rock Me Daddio and the Vipers Skiffle Group’s follow up, Cumberland Gap were also released by Lonnie. The Vipers Skiffle Group’s last chart entry was Streamline Train also in 1957, they carried on recording and for a while they were a big name attraction. By 1958 the Skiffle craze had run it’s course and the fans of Trad Jazz went back to just digging Trad Jazz but the second coming of Skiffle had been a success.
The Vipers Skiffle Group now known as just the Vipers with Jet Harris, Tony Meehan and Hank Marvin passing through the line-up and then going on to form Cliff Richard’s original band called Drifters. The Vipers headed off into the realms of Rock ‘n’ Roll with the release of a cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summer Times Blues in 1959. Wally Wyton kept the Vipers going until 1960 but then these Skiffle Punks went their separate ways.
The Vipers had a crude image, skilful and alive but still unpolished.
Musical wildness is sometimes measured in loudness or how fast it goes but the down-to-earth content of Skiffle was wild and free......free as a bird on high.....