Various Artists

Washboards... Kazoos...Banjos: The History of Skiffle

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"History" suits the subtitle of Bear Family's definitive 2013 skiffle box set Washboards…Kazoos…Banjos…The History of Skiffle because skiffle belongs to history. It belongs to a moment in time and, now that the moment has long passed, it deserves to be chronicled in a set as monumental as this, a set that celebrates its supernova explosion in the '50s. And Washboards does focus directly on the four years between 1954 and 1957 when it was a bona fide British craze, dismissing the prehistory with a mere three songs (Memphis Jug Band's 1930 single "It Won't Act Right"; Alabama Washboard Stompers' "Pigmeat Stomp," also from 1930, and Leadbelly's "There's a Man Going Round Taking Names"), and never bothering with the reverberations of skiffle outside a handful of German acts from the early '60s. The biggest knock that could be leveled against the set is that it never explores how skiffle inspired a generation of British teenagers to pick up their guitars and play, but those teenagers -- who count among their ranks the Beatles, the Who, Van Morrison, and Jimmy Page -- never made recordings of themselves knocking out versions of "Rock Island Line," so their absence is certainly understandable. Furthermore, by concentrating specifically on the four years where skiffle swept through Britain, Washboards…Kazoos…Banjos winds up replicating some of the sensations, capturing the surprisingly jazzy sensibilities of Ken Colyer, then the overwhelming exuberance of Lonnie Donegan, the king of skiffle who deservedly gets a full disc devoted to him here. Donegan is the Elvis of skiffle yet the surprise of Washboards is that he's a bit exhausting to listen to at length; all that excitement wears a listener down. That can't be said of the groups collected on the third disc, dubbed "The Professionals," a collection that includes the Chris Barber Skiffle Group and the Vipers Skiffle Group. All these bands benefit from somewhat slicker, richer production and a varied attack, while the groups on the fourth disc "Purists & Jazzers" (which includes cuts by Alexis Korner, who would later become a pivotal figure in British blues) hearken back to Colyer's love of New Orleans jazz. These two discs are the gems of Washboards, illustrating how skiffle was more musically elastic than its stereotype handed down in rock histories -- a stereotype, it has to be said, that derives largely from those hard-headed Donegan sides -- while the collection of "Pupils, Young Pretenders & Copycats" splits the difference between the jazz-besotted professionals and Donegan's enthusiasm, sometimes with charming results. These subtle differences between aesthetics is the most appealing aspect of Washboards…Kazoos…Banjos, but make no mistake, these can be minute shifts in tone. All the acts here share roughly the same instrumentation, the same influences and often the same repertoire ("Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O," "Midnight Special," "Down by the Riverside," "Cumberland Gap," "It Takes a Worried Man," "Maggie May," and, of course, "Rock Island Line," pop up often), so there can be a certain sameness to the set, a familiarity that will keep the curious at bay. Then again, anybody willing to spend nearly eight hours listening to skiffle comes prepared for the inherent repetitiveness of the music and, if they do listen to the entire box, they'll find that skiffle was far more robust within the confines of its proud limitations than they may have first suspected.

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:29
2 2:07
3 2:15
4 2:13
5 3:50
6 3:28
7 2:10
8 2:39
9 2:20
10 2:10
11 2:33
12 2:29
13 2:00
14 3:14
15 3:36
16 3:01
17 2:49
18 2:39
19 2:53
20 2:15
21 2:41
22 2:37
23 3:10
24 2:29
25 2:07
26 3:00
27 5:14

Track Listing - Disc 3

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:13
2 2:04
3 2:45
4 3:28
5
2:56
6 2:08
7
2:28
8 2:10
9 2:21
10 2:25
11 2:46
12 2:17
13 2:18
14 2:10
15 2:14
16 1:55
17 1:53
18 2:34
19 2:58
20 2:48
21
2:23
22 2:16
23 2:16
24 2:16
25 2:43
26
1:54
27 2:09
28
1:56
29 2:20
30 2:17

Track Listing - Disc 4

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1
2:20
2
2:42
3 2:47
4 2:24
5 2:34
6 2:17
7 2:31
8 2:31
9 2:42
10 3:32
11 4:06
12 2:37
13 3:16
14 3:02
15
3:06
16
3:16
17 2:43
18 2:56
19 2:42
20 2:59
21
2:07
22
2:45
23 2:36
24
2:34
25
2:31
26
2:40
27 1:54
28 2:15
29 3:31
30 3:39
31 3:11

Track Listing - Disc 5

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:25
2 3:41
3 2:33
4 4:38
5 2:58
6 2:15
7 3:18
8 2:55
9
2:40
10
2:14
11 3:19
12
3:10
13 1:56
14 2:16
15 2:26
16
2:02
17 2:24
18 1:59
19 1:48
20 2:27
21 2:15
22 2:59
23
2:30
24
2:02
25
1:52
26 2:09
27 1:50
28 2:22
29
2:04
30
2:26
31
2:38

Track Listing - Disc 6

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:38
2 3:49
3
2:13
4 3:02
5 2:05
6 2:56
7 2:34
8 2:56
9
3:40
10 2:02
11
2:09
12
2:31
13 2:19
14
2:14
15 2:09
16
2:18
17 2:05
18 2:10
19 2:10
20
2:17
21 2:07
22
2:14
23
2:37
24 3:27
25 2:08
26 2:48
blue highlight denotes track pick