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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

Various Artists

Rock ’n’ Skiffle: Brit Beat Beginnings (Proper Box)

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1954 was the year rock 'n' roll appeared on the U.S. horizon and Elvis Presley made his first recordings on the Sun label. The new music was entirely absent that year in Britain. If there had been a hazy view of it in the United Kingdom around the time, it would be when the Ted Heath Orchestra covered Bill Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy" in a limp version not unlike The Beatles in years to come, when the group limped through Little Richard and Buddy Holly songs.

Skiffle was where it began in Britain. It could be called American folk music on speed and influenced many of the major bands that emerged in the 1960s from the British Invasion. Lonnie Donegan's version of "Midnight Special" was the first skiffle record to make the charts in 1955; "Rock Island Line," "Stackalee" and others followed and made their way to the U.S. charts as well. One can hear how this music left its mark on things to come in this delightful box set.

Along with Donegan, Rock 'n' Skiffle includes 100 tracks by various artists that go in and out of the rock idiom but always come back to American folk song either by careful title or crazy arrangement. By the time we get to Tommy Steele we are beginning to hear that the English are working into a rock 'n' roll sound, but the charm of this thorough collection, replete with a little history book, has all to do with the DIY sound of poor acoustic guitar, tea chest for bass, snare drum only and mom's washboard-and a lot of Mighty Wind singing.

With hardly any of the purity and eventual originality of the American Folk/Blues Revival of the '60s, skiffle music, with its penchant for rock but inability to achieve it, has all to do with what comes later. Rock 'n' Skiffle is an absolute joy and an essential historical document. Working with a hundred misconceptions about American life and music, the skiffle acts transformed the exotic folk and blues of a faraway nation into their own pop music. The entire so-called British Invasion at first was this music with better instruments.