"Chas. McDevitt and the Skiffle Craze"

London, March, 1998

by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to

Burrowing in a second-hand bookshop off St Martin's Lane recently, my ears pricked up at the mention of the Reverend Brian Bird. As an unreconstructed skiffle buff, I knew the parson as the author of a pioneering book on that short-lived but crucial pop music craze in the Britain of the mid-Fifties. The Story of Folk Song With a Jazz Beat was its subtitle, and on the very first page the Reverend explained his interest by quoting Iris Murdoch. Asked by the BBC why she liked Chris Barber's jazz she replied, 'Oh, I don't know. It just does something to me!'

That had been good enough for me and millions of other youngsters. We cared little about the painful American origins of this music - of downtrodden blacks and hill-billies, of murderers (Lead Belly) and Communist dupes (Woodie Guthrie). We just liked the slashing rhythm that got faster and faster and the fact that this was DIY music involving household objects: a tea chest, a broom handle and string for the bass and a washboard and thimbles for the drums, plus Uncle's cast-aside guitar for the chords. There weren't many chords needed - three would do nicely. The hitherto unbreachable gates of popular music, guarded by double-breasted dance band leaders and sneering, slouching jazz musi-cians, were at last opened to a merry band of amateurs, fueled by folksy enthusiasm and Merrydown cider. Lonnie Donegan led the army with his 'Rock Island Line'.

Thousands of skiffle groups followed him, but no other individual stars. We took up guitars in youth club, barracks and church hall. Music was accessible to all. For better or worse, the long-term result was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and punk. Skiffle was the most influential event in British pop history.

Back in 1958 Revd Bird had set the story of skiffle between hard covers. Nearly 40 years later, in the second-hand bookshop, I heard Bird's name again. The speaker was my skiffle hero, Chas McDevitt, whose group hit big in 1957 with their version of an American folk song called 'Freight Train'.

Chas is now a rubicund, almost Pickwickian fellow. Like most of the best skifflers, he's a Scot. Shaking me firmly by the hand he followed up with a flier adver-tising his contribution to the tiny library of skiffle history: Skiffle - The Definitive Inside Story, with an introduction by George Harrison (Robson Books, £ 19.95).

The last time I saw Chas - on the screen if not in person - was in The Tommy Steele Story. The finale showed his skiffle army stretched across the stage, seven guitarists scrubbing hard, dressed to a man in jeans, check shirts and gym shoes, led by Chas with his fine beard and manly smile. Pop stars hitherto had worn dinner jackets and bow ties, but here were successful musicians in casual clothes, stuff you could buy at Millett's. They were British: there was hope for us locals against the slick waves of American popsters.

As I made my way home from the book-shop, I found myself back at Bryanston School, lazing in the long grass with my pals, strumming skiffle songs under the watchful eye of the school chaplain. Our Music was outdoors and healthy, redolent of camp-fire singalongs and George VI singing 'Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree' in the company of massed scout leaders just before war broke out.

We sang of picking bails of cotton, of chain gangs, riverboat gamblers, dust bowls, and exotic places like the Grand Coulee Dam and the Cumberland Gap. Never the Watford Gap. The school jazz experts solemn and duffel-coated, tried to tell us how skiffle was really backroom 'rent part' music, orig-inally performed by oppressed negroes, and how the British trad jazzman Ken Colyer had discovered it in New Orleans and taught it to Chris Barber - who. in turn, had let his banjoist Lonnie Donegan strum out the precious stuff at intermission time in jazz clubs. It should be performed with eyes closed and intense missionary zeal; the performer should try to sound like an anguished negro.

But for us in the junior school, skiffle was an excuse for a knees-up in our grey shorts, a way to enjoy the excitement of Bill Haley-style rock 'n' roll without the expense of electric guitars, saxophones and Scotch plaid dinnerjackets. Every week I'd cycle to Blandford and buy the latest 78s. Melody Maker and New Musical Express kept me up with the times: Chas McDevitt's washboard player had insured his fingers for £ 5,000 at Lloyd's; Billy Cotton, dressed as a Teddy boy, was playing tea chest bass in his stage shows.

On the TV screen where once had been Children's Hour, we could now watch The Six-Five Special, a BBC show run as cosy, comfy family entertainment by authoritarian figures, including a sergeant major and a boxing champion. It epitomized a Britain still well-ordered, still on the right tracks...

Reading Chas McDevitt's definitive 'inside' story, I learned what it was like to have been a 'pro' in those days. Pulling the birds, Chas tells us, was as important as making music. There was a bassist whose chat-up line was that he had a bullet in the balls during the war, with the result that ejaculations was merely a gush of air. At ancient Moss Empires he'd emerge out of broom cupboards adjusting his dress with satisfaction, followed by a dolly bird in disarray. 'Roma of Sheffield' was known nationwide to the 'pros' as a service provider, but you had to watch out for her false teeth. Mancunian Roy grinned at the girls so widely that one night, during his piano solo, his own dentures shot across the stage, but Chas nobly retrieved them, followed by a spotlight and appreciative applause. Ever the gentleman, Chas tells of exasperating nights sharing digs with skifflers, flushed with curry and beer, whose idea of fun was lighting each other's farts. Back in relatively civilized Soho, he could relax in one of the many espresso coffee bars with a frothy coffee and a strategic view of the 'amply-proportioned' waitresses. This was a simple era, with none of the cross-dressing and male eye-liner that came in during the next decade. Coffee bars, flashing with Gaggia machines, such as The Two Is (named after the Irani Bros) and The Gyre and Gimbal, were proving grounds for future rock stars such as Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Marty Wilde. They were also infested with wrestlers, airline stewards, and local villains such as Jack Spot. The Curly King gang, armed with axes and shotguns, chased errant skifflers. Nowadays it's all Burger King and Virgin.

Chas provides an A-Z of skiffle groups, their histories and discographies, plus a chapter on pseudo-skiffle (Don Lang and His Frantic Five and Billy Cotton) as well as a complete list of the 50 groups who competed in the National Skiffle Contest of 1958. He pays tribute to the many deceased skifflers (the perils of booze and ciggies) and he provides some 'useful addresses' (the Lead Belly Society, and UK Washboards International of Stroud).

He is keeping the flame alive with regular skiffle evenings in and around London. I would love to participate with my ukulele (Chas is a keen George Formby fan). But I have to confess that the graphic picture he paints of Fifties Britain brings back to me the agony of chilblains and constipation. Chas's description of the skiffler with the flying dentures reminds me why I live in California: 'Roy had a nasty habit of dragging the back of his hand across his runny nose and, while surreptitiously wiping it down his trouser leg, would say, "Bloody Chas (sniff) I want more money!'" The skiffling has been minimalised but the sniffing, I believe, is still rampant.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to