Any skiffle compilation that opens with the Vipers Skiffle Group doing gospel, jumps to Johnny Duncan (the U.K. skiffle guy, not the U.S. artist) doing country, and puts Lonnie Donegan in the third spot is already doing something right from the get-go, shuffling the most familiar names into an edifying order that's also entertaining. This 60-track, double-CD set embraces the recognized giants in the field such as Donegan -- skiffle's only international star -- and the Vipers, jazzers such as Chris Barber and Ken Colyer, who dabbled in the field, bluesmen (including Alexis Korner) whose work intersected with the boom in this American-style roots music, and forgotten outfits such as the Bob Cort Skiffle Group and the City Ramblers Skiffle Group. And equally important, the quality is extraordinary across the board. There's not a track here that isn't worth hearing, and some more than once for the history lesson that they provide -- the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group turns in a rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" under the title "New Orleans" that's a perfect illustration of the "folk" process at work, transforming the familiar cautionary lament into a rhythm-based, almost bouncy piece that's a long way from either Josh White, Bob Dylan, or the Animals.
There are established hits here, as well, including Nancy Whiskey's rendition of "Freight Train," and also lots of intermingling of the different genres that went into making skiffle -- country, gospel, blues, folk, all using American roots as a jumping-off point for something uniquely British (and British beat, as in beat generation) -- beyond the army veteran Donegan and some of the jazzers' (many of these players were the genuine bearded hipsters of their day in London or wherever) twists to their approach. And the jazz artists do get their moments of serious credibility, too: Ken Colyer's brooding "Midnight Hour Blues" is as good as any other cut here. The strategic placement of electric guitars on a big chunk of the material here also gives this collection some relevance to the overlapping rock & roll boom that was sweeping England -- roughly what rockabilly and some of the wilder country artists were to the more R&B-focused rock & roll coming out of the north in the U.S. in the mid-'50s. And one can find some of the roots of the British Invasion here; George Martin has long admitted that his experience with the Vipers was the perfect preparation for his subsequent work with the Beatles, and one can pick up some of the same elements in the recording of their work represented here that one would find on the Fab Four's Please Please Me album five or six years hence. And one gets to hear the more raw, obscure, original renditions of pieces such as "6.5 Special," which became better known in smoother, more pop-oriented versions. And the annotation is also very thorough.