Billy Bragg: Skiffle Songs Are Railroad Songs

Musicians Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine a Light tour by Egghead06 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.

“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.

There is a book; of course there is, it’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers How Skiffle Changed the World.  The Paris Review talked with Billy Bragg about the book, skiffle, the history of music, and duck jokes. Really.

I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.

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