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Roots, Radicals and Rockers


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Against a backdrop of Cold War politics, rock and roll riots and a newly assertive generation of working-class youth, the songwriter and political activist Billy Bragg charts the history, impact and legacy of skiffle - Britain's first indigenous pop movement.

About the Author

Stephen William Billy Bragg is an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist. His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, with lyrics that mostly span political or romantic themes. Billy's music is heavily centred on bringing about change and getting the younger generation involved in activist causes. For the entirety of Bragg's 30-year-plus recording career he has been involved with grassroots political movements, and this is often reflected in his lyrics. Bragg said in an interview: 'I don't mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.'


"In his first book, musician, left-wing activist, and sonic archivist Bragg has crafted a remarkable history of skiffle, a particularly British music genre. Initiated by amateur players obsessed with the blues, jazz, and folk, skiffle lured teenagers obsessed with all things American and eager to dance away post-WWII conformity and deprivation. With a DIY ethos and three-chord tunes, skiffle inspired a generation of British lads to pick up guitars, including among them Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and a young extraterrestrial who would later take the name "David Bowie." Roughly a cross between folk and R&B, skiffle quickly succumbed to the other two genres and faded from the charts, even as its former disciples led the British Invasion. Bragg impresses throughout with engaging prose and painstaking research. He further enlivens the text with personal insights and witty asides that give the material a unique cast few professional writers would dare. The introduction of dozens of new figures in the last third of the book diffuses the narrative but that's a minor demerit to an accomplished work. Ending with a flourish, Bragg convincingly argues for the emotional connection between skiffle and punk rock, something Bragg would know about better than most."
--Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"[ROOTS, RADICALS, AND ROCKERS} is a logical extension of his interest in protest and working-class culture, and is even more tirelessly researched and artfully told than a fan of Bragg's musical storytelling has reason to expect."
--Scott Timberg in The Los Angeles Review of Books
"A first-rate work of history."
--Financial Times
"Skiffle ... did produce a generation of influential working-class musicians. The Beatles grew out of skiffle group the Quarrymen--John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison's best attempt to make Lonnie Donegan fan music. When young Pete Townshend saw Ken Colyer play, he thought, "[The guitar] is going to the change the world. ... I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye, old timer, and that's exactly what happened." ROOTS, RADICALS AND ROCKERS does a good job of demonstrating the working class's potential to influence culture. Rediscovering a cohesive class consciousness could make that cultural force truly political."
-- In These Times
"Billy Bragg is a talented writer ... "ROOTS, RADICALS AND ROCKERS: How Skiffle Changed the World: [is] a deeply researched yet lively look at the musical craze that hit England in the mid-1950s."
-- The Boston Globe
"Nothing short of masterly. It would be hard to cite another historical book of such depth, quality and reasoned analysis by a working, nonacademic musician."
-- The Wall Street Journal
"Roots, Radicals and Rockers clearly showcases Bragg's affinity for history. It is exhaustively researched and intricately detailed. I feel as though I've walked away from this book not only more educated in the world of skiffle but enriched with an appreciation for the entire arc of rock 'n' roll and popular music as a whole.... There is tireless attention to detail in the storytelling. Bragg does the due diligence of laying the social and political groundwork of the era to contextualize the music. It's a wonderful, enjoyable, and, at this point I'd say, critical addition to any music enthusiast's library."
--The Indypendent
"Skiffle musicians, fans, and even readers who are not musically inclined will appreciate what this book has to offer."
-- Library Journal
"In his passionate history Roots, Radicals and Rockers, Billy Bragg -- a punker-turned-folkie musician of some 40 years' tenure -- has written a thorough, compelling survey of a transitional genre that burned briefly but brightly in the U.K. in the latter 1950s."
-- The Dallas Morning News
"Superb account, by British folk-punker Bragg (A Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics, 2016, etc.), of the politically aware, working-class skiffle craze of the 1950s.The so-called British Invasion of the 1960s was a repurposing of American music, a mix of blues, jazz, and country, that young people on the other side of the pond were hearing over American Armed Forces Radio and on records brought by Yankee ships. Yet there was a forgotten intermediary: skiffle. Born of old-school British takes on jazz, it added a rebellious racket, with a strong rhythm section built on bass, drums, and often washboard; throw thunderous guitars into the mix in the place of trombones and clarinets, and you have a homegrown recasting of an alien art form, one populated by unsung heroes and forgotten moments. Bragg finds skiffle on what he calls the "dead ground of British pop culture," and he aims to sing of those heroes and to recall their glories--and glories they were, marking a movement that anticipated punk in its insistence on DIY performances hampered largely by a lack of outlets for recorded music. The author traces skiffle to the early '50s, giving pride of place to Lonnie Donegan, a player whose recording of the old Lead Belly song "Rock Island Line" covered at about the same time by Elvis Presley in the U.S.--was a kind of declaration of skiffle's intent. It took some time for the moment to get going; as Bragg writes, "David Whitfield and Mantovani could sleep soundly in their beds," at least for a little while, until skiffle overwhelmed their easy-listening ways. But when it did, there was little to stop the likes of Alexis Korner and the Ghouls from raising a ruckus--and after them not just the Beatles, famously founded on skiffle, but also the Rolling Stones, whose founders cut their teeth on the skiffle sound. Writing with an expert practitioner's appreciation for music, Bragg tells the story of British rock-'n'-roll's forerunner with verve and great intelligence." illustrations throughout
--Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[A] fantastic history of a little known though immensely influential musical form ... Billy Bragg is [an] astute musical historian.... Bragg's enthusiasm for his subject shines in this definitive history of skiffle music -- and it's a fascinating read."
-- Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Magisterial.... There are many timely lessons to be learned from Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and Bragg, who writes with verve, wit, and his characteristic enthusiasm, is an excellent guide and companion."
--VICE, Noisey

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