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the story behind the book | kate tuttle

Skiffle strikes a chord with author Billy Bragg

david wilson for the boston globe

Best known as a musician with a notably political bent, Billy Bragg is also a talented writer. In 2007 he published “The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging,” in 2016 “A Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics,’’ and now comes “Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World,” a deeply researched yet lively look at the musical craze that hit England in the mid-1950s.

“Skiffle should have a bit more credibility than it’s had,” Bragg said. “I’ve always seen similarities in it with punk, which I was quite heavily involved in as a teenager, as a member of the audience and in a band.” Drawing heavily on African-American musical forms, especially New Orleans jazz and the folk and blues collected and revived by figures like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, skiffle is most often dismissed as a juvenile fad. But for Bragg, it’s an important chapter in British cultural history — and America’s.

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Created by British teenagers who’d grown up under post-war food rationing, skiffle allowed kids to make their own music, much of it inspired by what they were hearing from America. “They had a very strong feeling for African-American culture,” Bragg said of skiffle pioneers like Lonnie Donegan. “To them it was a rejection of mainstream British culture.”

Artists from the Beatles to Neil Diamond were strongly influenced by Donegan, whose rendition of “Rock Island Line” introduced a generation of British teens to American folk and blues — which in turn led to the music now known as the British invasion.

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“I’m always interested in that thing of how music moves around in a culture between different ethnicities, different countries, different types of people,” Bragg said. “If skiffle has a lesson for today it’s that we don’t get too hung up about where we get our inspiration from; the most important thing is to be able to make music and express our particular view through music, through communal activity.”

Bragg will read at 7 p.m. Thurday at Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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