Skiffle scuffle … as Billy Bragg brings out the pugilist in Pokey LaFarge!

Like Billy Bragg, I quite like Pokey Lafarge. His recent TEDx talk 'Evolving through preservation' was an amazing opportunity for him to enlighten us about the history and development of music in America. Speaking in St Louis, to a partisan audience, the eloquent orator Lafarge, made an excellent start. But at 3.35 he began to hesitate as he wrestled with what he was about to say. Perhaps the bee in his bonnet was buzzing so loud, he didn't know how, or if to say the next sentence. His little aside about Taylor Swift "not being country" drew a polite ripple of laughter, but as he struggled to construct his narrative, it became clear the diminutive singer was looking for a fight.

Some time earlier Bragg had mischievously written an article in the British Guardian newspaper entitled 'Whisper it …but the British actually invented Americana' where he went on to describe quite factually, the sequence of events that led to the Skiffle movement' in the UK, which eventually found its way full circle back to the States. Skiffle via Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan influenced a host of artists from early Donegan devotees the Quarrymen, (who morphed into the Beatles), the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Van Morrison. Bragg boldly concluded thus … "Americana was defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a genre of music having its roots in the early folk music of America, a definition that could also be applied to skiffle. That craze was the secret ingredient that gave British bands the power to take over the American airwaves in the 60s." Continuing with, "Just as Nashville has reinvigorated itself by going back to its roots, so British teenagers, inspired by those same influences, were able to escape the drab realities of post-war life by becoming the first practitioners of what we now call Americana."

For the normally affable and smiling LaFarge, this was too much … and when he eventually found his thread he launched a wholly unexpected broadside on Bragg. Recovering his composure for the fight, he said, 'It's important to be truthful about this music, go out and listen to as much American music as you possibly can." He told a hushed audience. "You can make the decision for yourself… so when DJ's, record labels, historians, journalists are telling you what Jazz and Blues are, and when they are telling you what country music is … You can make the decision for yourself, and it could be the most American thing you could do …" Pausing momentarily for effect, he continued, "When you have people like Billy Bragg, who are saying that England, through 'Skiffle music' invented what we know as modern day Americana, giving false claim to his people, his country and blatantly disregarding the early country, blues, rockabilly, rock n' roll and soul performers of the United States." He went on, "It's important to know your history, because there are people out there literally re-creating it to use it against you!" He went on to describe the significance of history and music and what had influenced him to make music and his observations on the modern music industry.

Wow, the diminutive but plucky entertainer who had previously expressed his dislike for the term 'retro' was on the offensive. Bragg momentarily on the ropes, was quickly back in control with a typically calculated counter offensive via his Facebook page (…tis the way of the World!).

So what are we to make of this skiffle scuffle in a British teacup?

Well, there are many interpretations, and perhaps each man had his point. Bragg, typically passionate about the music English and American, may have been stretching it a little to suit his own argument, but his description of events was largely factual.

The staunchly patriotic LaFarge, was clearly incensed by the Englishman's claim to what he considered to be, his musical heritage. However, interestingly or conveniently, missed out a key musical genre in the construction of his own argument that we must 'know our history'. That of course was folk music, from which it all began. I personally would have introduced a referee, the equally pugilistic (not always a good quality for a referee!) English folk singer Chris Wood, who when asked about American music and 'Americana' once said… 'When I sing American songs … I do so to bring them back home". (Americana-UK interview-Chris Wood)

It would be hard to deny that the British emigrants to America arrived with a rich musical heritage that was passed through families and moulded brilliantly into the American style thereafter (ask Bob Dylan who 'borrowed the tune of Nottuman Town for his 'Masters of War' and famously fell foul of Jean Ritchie in the process). This was in turn moulded by the influence of the African slaves who arrived in the seventeenth century. They, upon the abolition of slavery in 1865, began their own musical journey into jazz, gospel, ragtime and spasm or hokum (later termed 'skiffle' or poor mans Jazz), which in turn made its way to the UK and then turned full circle back to the US.

It is clearly a complex sequence of events, that make it difficult to interpret, but the original folk influences are clear in American folk, blues, gospel and 'skiffle' … Brian Bird in his quaint book on 'skiffle' published in 1958 said that ... "Skifflers play American-almalgamated, British derived, Africanised music." Maybe we should all be thankful for what ensued, perhaps best discussed as Billy Bragg quite rightly says "over a beer".

As it turned out Bragg and LaFarge were both playing a show over in Adelaide together recently and you would hope they shook hands, kissed and made up ... and perhaps sang a few 'skiffle' songs together!

Actually ... Sadly, it turns out they didn't! As this surreal skiffle soap opera unfolded before our very eyes via the medium of Billy Bragg's Official Facebook page it seems his cheery face-to-face attempt at reconciliation, at the recent show in Australia, ended in stalemate. LaFarge with his toys, now thrown firmly and far from his pram, railed against the Englanders argument and walked away accusing Bragg (yes, the same Bragg who worked on the Woodie Guthrie project with Jeff Tweedy) of "disrespecting roots artists".

Perhaps the GOOD NEWS is the resurgence of 'skiffle' music (whoever claims it) on both sides of the pond. One thing we can learn from history is that what goes around, comes around. It seems the 'people' are railing against what they percieve as 'manufactured music' and a whole new wave of skiffle, spasm, hokum, nu-skiffle it what you will and claim it as your own if you dare ... is heading your way. Time to get those washboards out again folks.


Alan J Taylor

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