Spasm bands and Skiffle are terms that might not be familiar to the average Beatles fan, but they were both hugely influential in spawning the band that changed the world.
You only have to look at the early line up of The Quarrymen/ Quarry Men to see their country influences. Dressed in their string ties like cowboy gamblers, the repertoire of The Quarrymen was not just rock ‘n’ roll, but country & western and skiffle too.
1956: Spasm and Skiffle
Skiffle became hugely popular in Britain in 1956 with Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” starting a musical craze that would go on to change the British music scene forever. Another hit, Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group’s “Freight Train”, featuring Nancy Whiskey sold in its thousands. McDevitt, often overlooked for his contribution to the skiffle craze, became so huge in the US for this song that he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957; seven years before The Beatles. However, it would be Donegan that most credit with inspiring them to become professional musicians.
Overnight, guitars that had sold in a few thousand per year were suddenly selling 250,000 per year. People joined skiffle clubs. Even the BBC, not knowing for keeping up with “the youth of the day” broadcast the World Skiffle Championship on television before launching a weekly radio show called Saturday Skiffle Club on the BBC Light Programme.
But where did skiffle come from?
This strange sounding musical group was one from the late 19th Century, where groups in New Orleans played a variety of dixieland, blues, traditional jazz, jug bands and, later, skiffle. A “Spasm” band was made up of musicians with often home-made or basic instruments. It was from these groups that skiffle groups appeared.
The earliest band to play under the name “spasm band” in New Orleans was formed in 1895, known informally as “Stale Bread’s Spasm Band” and billed as the “Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band” at semi-professional engagements, such as outside the West End Opera House. They played, amongst other things, a length of gas pipe, a kettle and a fiddle made from a cigar box. The spasm band style was one ingredient in the development of instrumental New Orleans jazz.
Skiffle then came from the African-American culture that was developing in the 1920s from New Orleans jazz, though there were improvised “jug bands” who were mixing blues and jazz in the southern states. These jug bands were often put together by a family looking to make the money to pay the rent.
The etymology of the word skiffle is unknown, though in a remote part of England, there was a word “skiffle” meaning to make a mess of any business. In America, the term was simply used to refer to these “jug bands” or “spasm bands” where the family were raising the money for the rent. It is most likely that the music progressed north via the migrant corridor that head away from New Orleans, up the Mississippi towards Chicago.
The first time the word was used in relation to records was in 1925 for a group called Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. They were playing a mix of country and blues, with songs such as “Hometown Skiffle” from 1929, and “Skiffle Blues” in 1946 by Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys. At this point, ‘Spasm bands’ became part of the musical lexicon.
Rock Island Line
When the Chris Barber Jazz Band were making their first album, New Orleans Joys, in 1954, they didn’t have enough songs, so they recorded a couple of extra songs. They decided to do “Rock Island Line”, as recorded by blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Nothing much happened for a year or so when Bill Haley had “Rock Around the Clock” topping the charts, so Decca records needed something to compete with it. They decided to release “Rock Island Line” as the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group, and it became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rod Davis, banjo player with The Quarrymen, explained more about the skiffle craze from a musical perspective. Was it jazz, country, blues, bluegrass?
“Donegan’s skiffle really started when he was with Ken Colyer’s Jazz Band. They played blues – essentially black man’s music – but later they got into more oldtime/ country music (the problem with the term ‘country music’ is that it has become too associated with Nashville and rhinestones). Donegan, of course, was speeding stuff up, just as Bill Black sped up Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.
“Lonnie never ever used a tea-chest bass, always an upright bass, and the only time he ever used a washboard in his group was on Rock Island Line/John Henry and that was jazz singer Beryl Bryden who wasn’t really a part of the Barber band anyway. The problem with getting closer to bluegrass and country is that there were no musicians in the UK who could play the style properly. The nearest you get is Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys. They were all stuck with using jazz musicians.
“Donegan had Denny Wright who was a great guitarist, but never country in a million years. Johnny Duncan, who was American and could play mandolin and is supposed to have actually played in Bill Monroe’s band at one time, was forced to use jazz fiddler Danny Levan, a great fiddler but not a country stylist; he also used Denny Wright. Johnny himself had a high tenor voice and sounded very bluegrass. ‘Footprints in the Snow’ would be bluegrass, if it wasn’t for the jazz musicians. It was originally a Bill Monroe number.” Monroe is seen as the originator of bluegrass music.
What Lonnie Donegan was playing, although called skiffle, was effectively British musicians playing their interpretation of American folk/ blues/ country and bluegrass. He was a huge fan of Woody Guthrie, the famous American folk singer. When you listen to Guthrie, you can hear where Donegan got a lot of his inspiration for the skiffle style.
What Donegan did, without realising it at the time, was to create a new musical craze that would revolutionise British music forever. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were all inspired by Donegan to pick up guitars and seek a career in music.