URGENT! More On the BBC’s “Trad Jazz Britannia” and Skiffle

Such was the response on my Facebook Jazzers Group to my feature
“Trad Jazz Britannia – Rescheduled by BBC!”
that I felt impelled to run this sequel before the programme is broadcast on
BBC Four at 9.00pm this coming Friday (24th May).

Chris Barber and Bob Hunt (Photo courtesy of Bob Hunt)

The question at issue focused on “Just Who Introduced Skiffle?” and I especially appreciated Britain’s leading jazz man Chris Barber taking the time to add his invaluable and authoritative comments.

So because Chris took the time to comment I begin this post with his observations followed by a series of other comments which the question elicited. Although some of these place different perspectives on the issues (for instance the origins of Skiffle, the historical sequence, “commercialised” Skiffle versus purity and musical integrity etc), taken in context none of them can be said to contradict Chris.

But let’s not forget that the main emphasis should be on just how the BBC approach “Trad Jazz Brittania”. Will they follow the drift of their earlier “Jazz is Dead” programme or will they have caught up with the fact that there are exciting new, young jazz stars and bands on the scene both sides of the Atlantic?

Peter Butler
Jazz&Jazz Owner & Editor
Moderator, Facebook Jazzers Group

Jazzers Group Feedback

Members of my Facebook Jazzers Group already have access to these comments via the Group. The links below are  to the relevant Facebook pages. Anyone on Facebook can join the Jazzers Group by sending a friend request to me at Facebook/Jazz&Jazz.


Chris messaged me with a follow up to his original comments (scroll down to see below) and
I asked him if I could transcribe his latest thoughts for Jazz&Jazz as I consider them very pertinent. He replied: “Yes you may. I might give you an unexpurgated version some time!!!! All the best, Chris”. So here they are:

Hi Peter

Getting back to when we first played music we thought of as “Skiffle”, the Blind Blake/Johnny Dodds 78’s on the “Hometown Skiffle” Paramount label of 1928 were the basis for this. I should add that when I referred to “my amateur band” I meant Alex Revell, Ben Cohen and others. Lonnie joined us in early 1952.

I am fully aware of the relative musical talents of, for example, Ken and Lonnie. But I would add that Lonnie and I were as enthusiastic as anyone about what I hate to refer to as “real skiffle”.

We were just as clear about the musical style and the serious background of the music. But since there was no evidence that there was any commercial value to it at that time, we didn’t seek to make it commercial.

Quite apart from being a singularly well informed enthusiast for all kinds of folk music, Lonnie had another musical hobby which was the music of Vaudeville entertainers, particularly Max Miller. The difficulty was that while Lonnie was a lover of the “Cheeky Chappie” style, this was absolute anathema and “Smart Alec” stuff to Ken.

So as soon as Bill told us that Ken was sacking us from our own co-op Band, we, being 5 out of 6 of the cooperative, had no alternative but to sack Ken, who obviously took with him Brother Bill who had NO position in the cooperative.

We would ALL have preferred it if, from the musical standpoint, Ken had stayed with us. But Bill offered us no option except to say that Monty and I were “catching on fast” and could stay with Ken. But this would have meant losing what to me has always sounded like a fine rhythm section. Skiffle per se played no role in all that!

As the Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times” – but fasten your seat-belts first!!!


Chris Barber

Hi Peter

I believe (as if it matters) that Lonnie and I were first using the word Skiffle [in the UK] when he joined my amateur band (very 20’s orientated).

I was happy to be able to try something like the Blind Blake recordings with Dodds etc (Paramount) and I had just acquired the 78 rpm Black label Paramount calling itself “hometown skiffle”. In effect this was a sampler with short sections of each of four releases by various Paramount Artists – just a minute or so of each of four records dubbed on to the two sides of the sampler 78 with phoney party noises in the background.

I later noted that Dan Burley had used the word Skiffle much later (in the thirties) for perhaps more boogie-woogie inspired recordings (but very good, in any case).

When Ken joined up with our new band, knowing he loved that music as much as we did, we suggested playing it together i.e. Ken and Lonnie with Guitars and me playing bass. We didn’t call it a “Skiffle Group” at the time… just that Bill Colyer [Ken’s brother] said “do some skiffle”.

The BBC has never managed to accept that traditional jazz was the music that broke the ice for the British public following years of dreary stuff and that skiffle merely crept in after jazz!

If Rock and Roll really was the first it would have robbed the world of Ken’s splendid answer to the question “do you realise that your music makes you the Grandfather of British Rock and Roll” – Ken said: “If I thought I was the father of a bastard like that I’d F’ing Shoot myself”.

Happy skiffling!

Chris Barber      

Bob Ironside Hunt  Knowing the BBC, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the emphasis all goes to Donegan.

John Petters Well put, Chris. I can imagine Ken saying that about Rock. Ken’s use of the word Skiffle does seem to pre-date the band you had with him, according to Mike Pointon’s book. “…and we played awhile with Dick on tubaphone. That was real skiffle music and quite a kick”. That’s from Ken’s letter dated 19th February, 1953 to [his brother] Bill. So was the term in use amongst musicians in the UK prior to this? Interestingly, I did a programme on the history of traditional jazz for Lincoln City Radio a few weeks ago and we covered Ken in quite a bit of detail. I used his ‘Downbound Train’ to illustrate Skiffle. the presenter, Tony Nightingale, himself a fan, thought that Ken’s Skiffle group was much more tame than Lonnie’s.

Louis Lince  Ken introduced Skiffle and Lonnie sang with him in the 1953 band. Phase 2 was with the Barber band 54-56, and then Lonnie’s solo career from 56 on. BUT there were others! Bet the Vipers and Russell Quayes don’t get mentioned!

John Petters  Ken was playing skiffle in New Orleans in 1953, according to his letter dated 19th February, 1953, on page 135 of the biography “Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer”. The BBC Rock ‘n’ Roll programme said Donegan. I think that’s inaccurate.

Louis Lince It’s all opinion. I agree that the Dan Burley promo 78 named the music publicly but, as Chris has said, “as if it matters”, so long as the music is recognised and not forgotten. Oh happy formative years in the ’50s!

June Bastable Ken’s skiffle group was more “tame” than Lonnie’s? That’s because Ken’s wasn’t a commercialised sound – it was funky, earthy, more genuine. Lonnie commercialised skiffle to make it appealing to the general public – hence, My Old Man’s a Dustman, Does your Chewing Gum, etc etc, after his initial success with Rock Island Line (still a favourite with many).

John Petters I agree with you, June. Ken’s recordings have a great feel. I did enjoy Lonnie. It was part of my childhood – and I got to do a few gigs with him in the 80s. He was a great entertainer and I got the impression that he was more into entertaining than being a devotee of the music, as I think is evidenced by the way he moved into the pop/rock/country scene. I could never imagine Ken doing that.

June Bastable You got it, John! Lonnie was an entertainer through and through, but Ken never wished to become a commercial success – all he wanted was to play the music he loved.

Jimmie Henshaw Though the the music will be varied I hope whoever put the show together will not distort history, as is the wont of so many shows about the history of music.

John Petters Given the people who took part, I’m hopeful that this will be a good show.


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  1. Ivan Halloran says:

    There are many more adherents to our style of Jazz, who I am hearing from, and who have an intimate knowlege of Collyer, Donegan and Barber, all from the UK, and who can be justly proud of their jazz roots and the continuing popularity of traditional jazz music. I hope that whatever the BBC presents is the truth, fair and unbiased. I love skiffle, from an artistic as well as a commercial point of view but then I love trad, and all forms of music. I will watch all of this with interest.

  2. Peter Butler says:

    The BBC did good!

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