Ragtime Society

From Classic Ragtime Blues Folk Skiffle R&B Soul We Derive Our Lives

History: from Rudi and Me, my memories of my grandfather (unpublished)
            articles: Skiffle, Ragtime to Hendrix (and coming soon) Rudi and Buster 

What does it mean?  A Folk word related perhaps to scuffle, part of the American Negro vernacular from the early 20th century, possibly earlier.  The man who introduced the word Skiffle to my grandfather Rudi Blesh in 1946 was Dan Burley, editor of the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s main newspaper.  Burley would also be instrumental in helping Rudi locate Lottie Joplin, Scott Joplin’s widow, in Harlem.  The papers my grandfather scooped up from the trash in Mrs. Joplin’s basement (including Treemonisha, Scott’s opera) became the basis for the 1970s Ragtime revival.  

Rudi was the Jazz Critic for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1940s, but he and his partner in Jazz Harriet Janis also had a record company, Circle, named for them by their friend and Greenwich Village neighbor Marcel Duchamp.  Although mostly concerned with documenting the great Stride Ragtime/Jazz pianists like James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Willie the Lion Smith and later Donald Lambert, Circle Records also dabbled in other Black Blues/Jazz styles: primitive Boogie Woogie (Jimmy Yancey, Montana Taylor), Gospel, surviving Ragtimers (Rudi and Mrs. Janis brought Eubie Blake out of retirement in 1946) and more.  Their big hope for success had been Rudi’s rediscovery of Bessie Smith era Blues belter Chippie Hill.  Her signature tune Look Down that Lonesome Road was a sure hit.  Alas Ms. Hill was run down by a taxi cab right after making her Circle sides in 1947.  Rudi and Hansi (as she was known) also went to great effort and expense to release on Circle the historic recordings Jelly Roll Morton had made at the Library of Congress with Alan Lomax in 1938.

Wanting to make a record in 1946 with friend Dan Burley Rudi chose the theme: a Chicago rent party from the earlier heyday of the Boogie Woogie.  South Side Shake would reflect the styles Burley had heard in the 1920-1930s when stars like Fats Waller could make far more money (and have much more fun) playing at parties than recording tunes they would probably never receive royalties for.  These “cutting contests” were vestiges of the earlier Ragtime competitions originating in the 19th century.  As a young man growing up in Chicago Burley had lived a double life, A student in Journalism at Wendell Phillips High School by day and lowdown Boogie Woogie piano player alongside who knows what by night.  When he hit New York City Dan became the Theatre/Sports Reporter at the Amsterdam News in 1938 and Chief Editor a few years later.  His main claim to fame seems to have been his infamous “Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive” an Uptown souvenir from the early 1940s you wouldn’t want to be caught without.

Of course Burley didn’t invent Jive, it had been around since the Ragtime entertainers like Bert Williams first presented Black culture to the public at large before World War One.  It was the language spoken by Jazz musicians to avoid arrest for illegal drugs.  It was also what every young white hipster wanted to get in on in the 1940s and of course the essence of what would become Rock and Roll.  So for the white jivers Dan Burley was the man.  But also within the Black community Burley commanded great respect, even being consulted by Langston Hughes for one of his poems regarding the “dozens aspect” (pre-curser to Rap).  Dan Burley was also the one who introduced Lionel Hampton to the Boogie Woogie.  So you could say that Burley is the Godfather of Rap and Rock and Roll, both again presented for us in the 1950s by Bo Diddley.

But back to Skiffle.  Oddly it does not even appear in Burley’s Dictionary of Jive, although the word Scuffle is listed.  Perhaps because Skiffle was archaic in 1946, the precursor to Boogie Woogie in the hipster lexicon.  Dan had already appeared “With His Skiffle Boys” on a recording made with Leonard Feather a few months earlier, but for the 1946 Circle session Rudi chose Brownie McGhee and his younger brother “Stix” as the guitar rhythm section.  The goal of Skiffle was to make good party music without professional musicians (horn players). So the fact that a piano and two surging lead/rhythm guitars could make acceptable popular music was a novelty, primitive, a revelation, both an insight into Jazz’s originating process and a vision of the stripped down R&B combos of the future.

original 1946 liner notes by Rudi Blesh:

south side shake

party music

From 1910 to about 1933, Chicago, at the confluence of rivers and railroads to the south, became the center of a great northward industrial migration of the Negroes and thereby a meeting place for barrel-house and boogie-woogie players.  The great South Side institution of “rent party” (locally known as “skiffle,” “shake,” or “percolator”) run by the landlady, paid the rent by the proceeds from the sale of homecooked food and nefarious, bootleg liquor, and was the scene of gambling, dancing, brawls and “good time,” These social affairs of a submerged, underprivileged, and partly expatriate dark population were the haven of those piano blues players who, making the rounds of the innumerable “skiffles,” subsisted on the free food and drink the large tips from those who emerged as winners in the crap game.
At their height in the 1920’s, these parties kept together the bodies and souls of several hundred players.  Native Chicagoans, like Dan Burley, rubbed elbows with players form other sections, some of whom were well known through their records, like Montana Taylor (Circle Album S-2: Barrel House Blues by Montana Taylor,) while others, like “The Toothpick,” “Tippling Tom,” “Detroit Red,” and the 375 pound James Hemingway, have disappeared, surviving only as legends.
The Depression seriously curtailed the “skiffle” institution, to which, previously, Prohibition raids had been, more or less, only a perpetual annoyance (Dan Burley says, “ Real playing--the ‘arm breakers’--began about midnight when the crap game broke up, and went on until five or six, whenever the ‘wagon’ came.”  The legalizing of liquor effected what the depression and the Prohibition raid could not, the end of the “skiffle.”  The hundreds of fine players scattered and went into other forms of employment, and a wonderful folk art all but disappeared.  Recorded to a degree on the race lists of the 1920’s it seemed to be a lost art.  It remained for CIRCLE to begin in 1946--as part of its program of recording the best in Afro-American music and jazz--to rediscover the great barrel house pianists like Dan Burley and Montana Taylor, and to record their mature art.

the artists

Dan Burley is widely known as the dynamic managing editor of Harlem’s Amsterdam News.  Only his intimates have known, however, that the selfsame Dan was once a leading party piano player of the Chicago South Side.
Born in Kentucky and taken to Chicago in 1917, as a boy of ten, Dan Burley grew up in the midst of the “skiffle” blues.  By fifteen, playing at the parties alongside the “professors,” he was holding his own and evolving his own style.  More articulate--and with a keener intellectual interest than his self-taught contemporaries, Dan learned to distinguish the individual styles of the players and the sectional styles they represented.  Master of more than two dozen different basses, Dan can demonstrate “Arkansaw” or “Memphis” piano, the turpentine camp boogie fo eastern Texas, the “Forty-four” piano of northern Louisiana, and the “deep woods blues” of Florida.  All of these rich influences color his playing on these records.
George “Pops” Foster is not only grand-daddy of all the New Orleans bass players but a player unmatched in jazz circles today.  It was forty years ago that Pops’ bow broke at a dance and, throwing it away, he began to slap his bass.  On the riverboats in 1917, and in Chicago by 1920, Pops Foster’s solid rhythm has propelled many of the great jazz bands.  In the “skiffle” days, however, he was to be found, as often as not, at some landlady’s, backing up the boogie player.
Brownie and Globe Trotter McGhee, two brothers from Tennessee, are famed blues artists, the former as a singer, both as masters of the exciting, rhythmic blues guitar style.  They team together perfectly in the real “skiffle” spirit.
These four artists form a group characteristic of the rent party.  Their fast blues rock with excitement, while their slow blues sing with the “low down” sadness of real “bottom music,” These disks are important documents of American music, and they are great fun to hear.  So We say, Put on a record and come to the party,  There’s “good time” here!

(end of quoted section)

The operative words in Rudi’s South Side Shake notes seem to have been “the real ‘skiffle’ spirit”.  Lonnie Donegan, the guitarist for The Chris Barber Band, was one of the first true Skiffle believers to use the word appropriately in Great Britain.  As Lonnie told Tony Palmer in All You Need is Love (1976): “ The name ‘Skiffle’ came from Chicago, It was music people would play for rent parties.  Impoverished neighbors would get together and hold a party.  They’d have a whoop-up with home-made wine and then play bits of music with a broomstick or a washboard-anything that was handy.  Then they’d pass the hat around to collect for the rent.”   These ideas came from Rudi’s notes on the South Side Shake album, also probably from Rudi's radio show, This is Jazz which was broadcast to servicemen like Donegan on the Armed Forces Radio Network.  This is Jazz on March 15, 1947 had featured Dan Burley in a raucous band arrangement of South Side Shake, including a Skiffle intro by Rudi.  Inspired by that same message, various Skiffle groups were organized in England by 1949 and in 1954, UK originating Skiffler Lonnie Donegan set off a Folk boom like no other while singing Leadbelly songs during his intermission show with Trad Jazzmen Ken Colyer and Chris Barber.  What “Folk” or “Jug Band” meant in America was called Skiffle in the UK.  Rudi told me that South Side Shake had been a strong seller in England of all places, on the Vogue label I believe (research).  I don’t think he had an inkling of what had actually transpired.  Unbeknownst to Rudi Skiffle became huge in Great Britain.  

Because all the great original Rock and Roll revivalists from the UK in the 1960s were Skifflers to start and that would include Lennon McCartney Harrison Starr, Stones, Animals, Kinks, Faces, Fleetwood Mac, Who, Moody Blues, Clapton, BeeGees, Hollies, Searchers, Hermits, Syd Barrett, Bowie, Zeppelin, etc..  And of course Skiffle (and Blues) had come out of Traditional Jazz.  As Jagger once said of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones in derision: “He was a reformed traddie, and, although he despised them, he was really one of them.” 

Well it hadn’t always been a put down like that.  Back in 1962 when schoolboys Mick and Keith had seen Brian “Elmo” Jones perform they thought maybe he really was Elmore James.  Before they became rich effete art poseurs all the Stones had once had "the real ‘skiffle’ spirit".  The day Paul McCartney met the somewhat inebriated fifteen year old John Lennon performing at the Church Fete he could see young Lennon had “the real 'skiffle’ spirit”.  In Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey book, his tribute to the Blues artists who created the music the Rolling Stones did so well, the Stones bassist takes a whole page to pay tribute to Rudi Blesh, not specifically for Skiffle but for his other contributions including writing first about Robert Johnson.  What a Traddie.

Back in 1946 the difference between Rudi and Hansi’s Circle label and Atlantic Records, for example, each just one of the many small independents, was commercial ambition.   Perhaps at the Skiffle sessions Stix McGhee had auditioned a song he’d heard in the Army “Drinking Wine... (maternal profanity)” for Circle and of course Rudi would have rejected it.  At Atlantic Ahmet Ertegan heard that same song, had Brownie switch a few lyrics, changed the title to “Drinkin' Wine Spo Dee-O-Dee” and Atlantic had their first major hit.
By coincidence (or not) later in the 1960s-1970s the owner and founder of Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegan became the mentor of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, the latter group soon thereafter caught plagiarizing Blues artists.  Ertegan had also been instrumental in the breakup of Cream, publicly belittling Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker calling them Eric Clapton’s “rhythm section”

Whatever happened to “the real 'skiffle' spirit”?

But back at Circle Records in the late 1940s Rudi and Hansi with their traditionalism were aimed backwards, not forwards into Rhythm and Blues like Atlantic.  Halfway through the growing Trad Jazz revival a strange thing happened.  A new ultra arty type of Jazz started coming into vogue.  Originally thought up as a form of musical shorthand by Jazz pioneers like Charlie Christian (guitar) and Mary Lou Williams (piano) Bop caught on with Jazz musicians sick to death of Swing and suddenly as a craze it was starting to have a big effect on the young intellectual set.  This was really ironic because if there was anything that Rudi had been pushing for all these years it was the recognition of the art in Jazz.  So here comes this new type of Art Jazz that wants to have nothing to do with Trad, Blues or Swing.  From his position as one of the heads of the NYC Jazz critic fraternity Rudi came down hard on Bop.  “Morning After Music” he called it at one time, a thinly veiled reference to the drug influences allegedly fueling the creative storm.  Moldy Fig was the name the Bopsters pinned back on Rudi and the other Traddies, and that one stuck.  There was bad blood flowing and Rudi wasn’t one to back down from the fight.  

This was in direct contrast with the scene in Europe and England where Trad and Bop more or less coexisted.  This was the reason South Side Shake, the Skiffle record was successful in the UK.  The scene was less commercialized and the audience was much more inclusive and naturally hip.  A few years later groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds, who’d all started out as Trad Jazz/Skiffle bands evolved right through Rhythm and Blues, Traditional Blues, Soul Music and Rock and Roll without the strict categorizations and ugly put downs that pervaded in the USA.  So in 1949, as Traditional Jazz went into the Dark Ages in America Rudi and Hansi contemplated their next move.

What happened of course is that they crisscrossed the country interviewing surviving old time piano players, and shortly thereafter released the book that became known as the bible of the Ragtime Revival: They All Played Ragtime, in 1950.  

Jazz always was a scuffle...

(end of piece)

note: here is what Brian Bird wrote in Skiffle 1958 (forward by Lonnie Donegan):

“But at long last, about the year 1948, some record of this type of music was begun in America.  A Harlem newspaper editor named Dan Burley made some piano recordings of numbers he used to hear as a youngster at parties in Chicago, which were called Boogies or Skiffles.  He was accompanied by two guitarists, Brownie and Globetrotter McGhee, and a bassist, Pops Foster, and decided to call the group ‘Dan Burley’s Skiffle Boys’.

A year later, in England, a Skiffle Group was formed within the ‘Crane River Jazz Band’, and in 1952 the well-known ‘Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen’, one of the foemost traditional Jazz bands in the country, formed a Skiffle Group within its ranks, and another group was used in 1954, when a smaller outfit was required to play the sort of music that Burley had played in America, which was still called by the name he had used--Skiffle.”  (end of quote)

The only inaccuracies in Bird’s narrative are the date of South Side Shake (1946) and the name of the group, which should be Dan Burley and his Skiffle Boys. 
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