The roots of skiffle music can be traced back to the early part of the twentieth century when jug bands, playing blues and jazz, could be found all over the southern states of America. However, at that time the music they were playing was not described as skiffle. Jug bands would use makeshift instruments including guitars made from cans with a neck and strings attached, upside down tea chests with a broom handle and string for the bass notes, hair combs with a tissue and a washboard, played with thimbles, provided the percussion. The name jug band came from another makeshift instrument, often a narrow-necked porcelain whiskey jar, on which the user would create a sound by blowing across the neck.
In America the term skiffle was slang for, and referred to, rent parties which were social events with a monetary charge that was used to pay rent on a property. Guests would turn up and the kind of music played would often depend on the company and what musical instruments they brought with them.
First recorded in Chicago in the 1920s one of the earliest uses of the term on record in America was by Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers.
Skiffle was a relatively obscure genre and may have quietly disappeared had it not been for its revival in the United Kingdom in the mid-fifties. The post-war jazz scene was largely responsible for the British skiffle craze at a time when jazz was moving towards a more authentic trad-jazz sound.
One of the most popular jazz bands in the mid-fifties was fronted by Ken Colyer and featured a banjo player named Lonnie Donegan. Born Anthony Donegan it was following an appearance in 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall with his idol, Lonnie Johnson, that he adopted his christian name.
During the interval at Colyer’s concerts Donegan would sing and play guitar accompanied by two other members on washboard and tea chest bass. On concert posters these were often advertised as ‘skiffle breaks’ but would soon become more popular than the rest of the concerts. At this time they were covering the folk and blues material that had become popular in America.