NEWS
07/14/2017 15:00 EDT

Punk-folk singer Billy Bragg on 'Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World'

Musician, activist and author Billy Bragg is unearthing a blind spot in the U.K.'s musical history with his new book, 'Roots, Radicals, and Rockers', about the genre of music called skiffle.

"It's basically, in absolutely simplistic terms, you could say it's British school boys playing Leadbelly's repertoire on acoustic guitars in 1956-57," Bragg said to The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Skiffle, inspired by blues, folk and jazz, began with a post war generation re-purposing the music of their parents to suit the modern ear, he explained, listing names like Van Morrison and David Bowie as artists who dabbled with the sound in their beginnings.

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Tracing skiffle back to one specific event, Bragg said that U.K. jazz musicians in the early 1950s came to play the the music through listening to recordings of popular music from 1920s.

"Because the records were recorded in the 20s on very primitive recording equipment, everybody in the session really blew very hard so it'd be audible on the one microphone," he said

"The British jazzers figured that was part of it so they blew really hard too, and within 30 minutes their lips were so numb they couldn't play anymore."   

To keep the audience entertained and the show going, the musicians put down their horns and picked up guitars.

"They called this break down session ... a skiffle session.

"They took a word from African-American culture and gave it to something that really is an indigenous form, [a sub-genre], of roots music, but it's indigenous to the U.K. It didn't really happen anywhere else."

Riding the rails

The book follows the release of Bragg's most recent record, Shine A Light, which he recorded while travelling across the United States — true to roots fashion — by train.

Riding the rails served as research for the book as well, and Bragg began to get a glimpse of the inspiration behind classic skiffle hits like Rock Island Line by Leadbelly, Freight Train by Chaz McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey and Last Train to San Fernando by Johnny Duncan.

"It just got me thinking why there were so many train songs in this culture and the way that the train is the real metaphor for something much deeper in the American psyche," he said, adding that the album wouldn't have had the same power behind it had it been recorded in studio.

He recalls riding across Canada by train from Toronto to Vancouver to play at the Folk Festival in the 80's, and this year he returns to the festival's stage to perform some of those songs inspired on the tracks.

Bragg performs at the 40th annual Vancouver Folk Festival on Friday, July 14.

Listen to media below to hear the full interview: