When Jug Band & Skiffle Rocked

Some Call It “Jug Band”and Others Call It “Skiffle” 

In the sixties, the sound of popular rock music was influenced by a number of different musical styles — notably blues, soul, jazz, folk and even country. That ’60s (and ’70s) music was a big part of the soundtrack for the baby boom generation. Two musical sub-genres that seldom receive the credit they deserve, both derived from blues, are American “jug band” and British “skiffle.”

Jug band instruments (Photo credit America’s DIY Music-Jug Band)

Jug Band & Skiffle Go International

The Lovin’ Spoonful

In the United States, the Lovin’ Spoonful was a phenomenally popular ’60s band with its origins rooted in jug band music. Original members, John Sebastian (frontman/vocals, songwriter, multi- talented musician), Zal Yanovsky (lead guitar/vocals), Steve Boone (bassist and sometimes keyboards), and Joe Butler (drummer/vocals) were a hit-making force of nature.

The Spoonful was commonly mislabeled as a “folk-rock” group. That annoyed John Sebastian. They were folk only in the way jug band music is “folkie” — basic and often played on homemade instruments. Jug band is simple, but it has lots of parts — a blend of Ragtime, Delta blues, and Appalachian mountain music with a heap of old-fashioned fun thrown in.

In the late fifties into the ’60s, young Brits craved skiffle music. Back then a man named Lonnie Donegan was comfortably perched on top of the British Hit Parade. He was a guitar playing, banjo picking, singing Scotsman, who led Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group.

Lonnie Donegan

Donegan’s hit records created skiffle fever and that musical malady took over Britain and parts of Europe in the late ’50s. High school students, obsessed with the skiffle craze, organized underground resistance to counter efforts by school administrators to ban student lunch breaks at neighborhood skiffle cafes.

While most teenagers were content to be skiffle enthusiasts, some kids with bigger aspirations joined bands that imitated Donegan’s innovative sound. British historians estimate that the U.K. had more than 30,000 skiffle bands from the late ’50s into the ’60s.

Most of the teens playing in skiffle bands were boys. And most of those boys are now long forgotten. However, some of them changed the course of music history. They launched bands with names like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Them and Led Zeppelin. Ironically, Lonnie Donegan’s greatest moments in the spotlight did not coincide with the British Invasion: He wasn’t part of it, but he was the precursor to it!

Genres Defined

“Jug band” — A group of blues, ragtime, jazz, or folk musicians employing conventional and/or improvised instruments such as jugs and washboards. Jug bands originated in the southern United States in the twenties and the thirties. Jug band was resurgent in New York City clubs in the ’60s.

“Skiffle” — A style derived from American blues, ragtime, jazz, and folk music. In Britain (and in parts of Germany) skiffle was introduced in the late ’50s. Skiffle bands often incorporated conventional and homemade instruments into their performances. (So-called “American skiffle” compilation albums tend to be old recordings of the earliest American jug bands.) Skiffle was mostly a British thing.

Different Words, Same Meaning!

With minor differences, the words jug band and skiffle are synonymous. They are kissin’ cousins. A North American jug band would be called a skiffle band in Europe and vice versa. Jug band and skiffle musicians play both traditional and old folk/homemade instruments. Here’s a short list of common noise makers:

Jugs — A musician buzzes his or her lips while blowing over the neck of a large ceramic jug or a glass bottle. The sound approximates that of a bass trombone. Jugs are standard fare, except they have been less popular with British skiffle groups than with U.S. jug bands.

The late Fritz Richmond, best known as part of Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, was the most accomplished jug player known to humankind.

Washtub basses — A stick or wood handle is attached to an upside down wash tub. A rope or cord is strung from the top of the handle to the bottom of the washtub. The metal tub resonates when the string is plucked. Pivoting the handle, which loosens or tightens the tension on the string, changes the pitch. A washtub bass passes for a standing bass. Skiffle bands in Britain historically substituted a wooden tea chest for the metal washtub.

Fritz Richmond was also the most accomplished washtub bass player known to humankind.

Washboards — Percussion sounds are created by tapping or scraping on a washboard’s metal ridges. The washboard player often wears thimbles on two or more fingers, although scraping on the washboard with different objects creates unusual sounds. Cymbals and bells may be attached to a washboard. Geoff Muldaur, a versatile jug band performer, keeps rhythm with a gussied up washboard or so-called “rhythm board.”

Geoff Muldaur, of Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, is a master washboard player.

Oddballs Abound

Single string spam can banjo (Photo credit Guitar Pick Collection)

There’s a long list of off kilter instruments that fit in with jug band and skiffle performances. For example, stringed cigar boxes can be converted into fiddles or guitars. Mandolins and banjos might be designed from dried, flattened gourds, or from tin plates or tin cans. Attach an old guitar neck, or a wooden stick, to the gourd or tin and viola it’s a stringed instrument. For the musician who doesn’t like those options, maybe try strumming on a Spam can banjo or a tobacco can shaker filled with rice or lentils.

The Jew’s harp or jaw harp twanger, an old folk instrument, is held to a musician’s mouth to intensify the resonance of the instrument. Mouths are important in jug band and skiffle music. Along with singing and whistling, mouths are essential for blowing into stovepipes (a sound like an aboriginal didgeridoo), or into comb and tissue paper or store bought kazoos. Traditional harmonicas, horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas, bugles, flutes and even lowly hand harps or hand trumpets (musician enthusiastically blows into his or her hand) all fit in just fine.

Manual typewriter makes “Money”

Other percussive and rhythm instruments common to jug band and skiffle music are tambourines, wooden or metallic “musical spoons,” or hollow sounding “rhythmic bones”(hardwood sticks). Bells, cowbells and snare drums, or any old drum, are good choices. Practically speaking, just about any object that can be coaxed into making a noise has potential for a jug band or skiffle band. On the Spoonful’s 1968 single “Money,” percussion was courtesy of a manual typewriter.

On “She Is Still A Mystery,” Sebastian introduced an obscure instrument known as a Marxophone (sounds like a hammered dulcimer). He played an autoharp (unconventional in rock) on the Spoonful’s 1965 debut single “Do You Believe In Magic. Sebastian played autoharp again on “Nashville Cats.” He played a floor harp (now that’s unconventional!) on the Top-10 hit “Rain On The Roof.” On “Darling Be Home Soon” his vocal was accompanied by three guitars, drums and a full orchestra. John Sebastian would whistle, play harmonica, guitar, autoharp, floor harp, keyboards, Marxophone, and do whatever it took to create unique records.

Top left – Sebastian with autoharp. Upper right- Joe Butler on Bones. Lower left – Sebastian on Marxophone. Lower right- Sebastian with floor harp.

Homemade Instruments Welcomed, But Not Essential

Jugs, washboards, washtub basses, kazoos and jaw harps draw smiles and attract attention. But most jug band and skiffle groups rely heavily on conventional instruments. The humorous contraptions are fun to look at, but the core sound usually comes from traditional acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins.

Traditional instruments (Photo credit Banjo Ben’s General Store)

Jug Bands Will Rock

It was on the east coast in the ’60s that the Lovin’ Spoonful became the first American band to take jug band music onto the Top-40 charts. The Spoonful was also the first American group to plug electric guitars into the jug band sound. Coincidentally, at the same time on the west coast, Jerry Garcia was working a job as a music instructor at a music shop in Palo Alto. On the side, he played gigs with his band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Band Champions

Garcia heard the Spoonful play electrified jug band at a Bay Area concert. He became a believer: Garcia took his jug band electric. With a new name, the Grateful Dead achieved legendary status as a psychedelic rock band.

Birth Of American Jug Bands

Jug band music was born in the southern United States. It was the creation of African American performers, many of whom sang the blues, played the blues or had Vaudevillian or medicine show backgrounds.

The first jug band sighting was in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century (specific date undetermined). The next documented sighting was in 1903 when a jug band played at the Kentucky Derby. The first jug band record, a 78 rpm, has been credited to Louisville’s Old Southern Jug Band. Their “Hatchet Head Blues,” was released in 1924. (Click on the record below to hear the song.)

“Hatchet Head Blues” (2:46)

Pioneering jug band performers were eager to make music, but they lacked money. Manufactured instruments were costly; however, utilitarian jugs, washboards, washtubs, kazoos, bells and hand trumpets were cheap. The Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, both based in Memphis, were the preeminent jug bands in ’20s and ’30s America — which coincides with the era of Prohibition in the United States (1920 to 1933).

Jugs In The Village

The famous Night Owl Cafe in the Village.

That original jug band music wasn’t a flash in the pan. The Memphis Jug Band endured clear into the late ’50s.

Come the ’60s, the United States saw a folk and jug band music revival. It began in New York City’s hip Greenwich Village clubs and the fad spilled over to the street bands that passed the hat at nearby Washington Square Park.

John Sebastian lived that ’60s music scene. He had grown up in the Village. His dad was a professional classical harmonica player and his mom wrote radio comedy. John, in his later teen years, played and sang at Village coffee houses.

In a 2007 documentary, produced by American Public Television (APT), Sebastian described Greenwich Village as a melting pot of cultures and ideas that embraced folk music, jug band, doo-wop, classical, blues, and jazz. Yet, in the early ’60s, an undercurrent of excitement rippled through the Village — the word was out that the Beatles were coming to America!

John Sebastian (2007 photo)

Interview from The Lovin’ Spoonful with John Sebastian: A Lovin’ Look Back. Produced by APT in 2007 (Length 2:26)

Big Names In The Village

Dylan at the Bitter End Folk Club, 1961

A young Bob Dylan dropped out of college and landed in the Village in the winter of 1961. Other soon to be luminaries, playing Village coffee houses, were early incarnations of Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Jesse Colin Young, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Melanie, John Denver, Jose Feliciano, John Lee Hooker, Pete Seeger and Neil Young.

Maria (D’Amato) Muldaur

John Sebastian had many friends and musical contemporaries in Greenwich Village. One of whom was future star Maria D’Amato (best known by her married last name Muldaur). Sebastian was close to Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips. The personal connections ran deep: He had performed with D’Amato in the Even Dozen Jug Band. The Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky (and briefly Sebastian) had played with Denny and Cass in the folk group the Mugwumps. When the Mugwumps broke up, Yanovsky and Sebastian co-founded the Spoonful. Meanwhile, Denny and Cass and John and Michelle (formerly with the New Journeymen) found one another and they became the Mamas & the Papas.

The autobiographical story of the Mamas & the Papas was told in their 1967 Top-10 single “Creeque Alley.” The lyrics mentioned the Mamas & the Papas, the Spoonful and Roger McGuinn (the Byrds) and Barry McGuire (New Christy Minstrels and singer of the No. 1 smash “Eve of Destruction”).

John Phillips said he wrote “Creeque Alley” to help his producer, Lou Adler, better understand the relationships between the Mamas & the Papas and their friends. If you’re wondering about the name “Creeque Alley,” before they became the Mamas & the Papas, Denny, Cass, John & Michelle had visited Creeque Alley — a real alley in the Virgin Islands.

“Creeque Alley” with commentary. Produced by APT. (3:48)

A documentary titled California Dreamin’-The Songs of the Mamas & the Papas was created by American Public Television in 2005. It included the Mamas & the Papas performing “Creeque Alley,” with commentary added. That segment is in the next video. (It’s at ad free Vimeo, so click on the play button 2x – first to get to Vimeo and again to start the video.)

Jug Economics

The jug band resurgence in the ’60s was predictable and, in part, a case of survival economics. Hippies related to music, but many of them suffered from a cash shortage. There was a solution: Find an old guitar, maybe a banjo, a washboard, and/or a kazoo and create a do-it-yourself band on the cheap! With luck, and hopefully talent, that band might be able to make some money by busking for tips at a coffee house, on the street, or in the park.

The Dirdy Birdies Jug Band played the Village in the mid-’60s. They are still performing.

Jug Band Went Top-40

Teen magazines and radio deejays often told of the Spoonful’s jug band roots. Those roots were apparent in the songs they sang, the lyrics Sebastian wrote, and the instruments they played.

Teen mags dug the Spoonful. “Flip” magazine, March ’66

Sebastian’s tune “Jug Band Music” became a hit single in Canada in 1966. In the U.S., it was released only as an cut on the “Daydream” LP. American deejays gave the album track lots of airplay, so it is well-known in the U.S.  Zal Yanovsky, a Canadian citizen for life, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1996. At the ceremony he and Sebastian played “Jug Band Music.” (Click on the record below to hear the song.)

“Jug Band Music” was a No. 2 hit single in Canada. (2:53)
A Lovin’ Spoonful of those magical musical spoons

Magical Jug Band

The lyrics to the Spoonful’s first Top-10 hit “Do You Believe In Magic” reveal Sebastian’s and the band’s appreciation for jug band music:

“If you believe in magic don’t bother to choose
If it’s Jug Band Music or rhythm and blues
Just go and listen it’ll start with a smile
That won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try”

That Goodtime Music

Members of the Spoonful were proud of their jug band beginnings. Yet, to promote their music to the record buying public, they called it “goodtime” music. In his 2007 interview with American Public Television, Sebastian explained the whys and hows of the term “goodtime” music.

John Sebastian (2007 photo)

Sebastian speaks of “Goodtime Music.” Produced by APT in 2007. (1:43)

On The Road Again

“On The Road Again,” the song referenced by Sebastian in the interview, was in its original form crude and racially inflammatory. But the tune itself, as originally performed by the Memphis Jug Band, was a jug band classic. A sanitized version of the song ended up in the Spoonful’s repertoire. “On The Road Again” was rewritten by Sebastian and put on the B side of their first hit single “Do You Believe In Magic.” It was also released as a cut on that first album. (Click on the record below to hear the song.)

The Spoonful’s cover of “On The Road Again” was the flip side of “Do You Believe In Magic” (1:49)

Sebastian wasn’t the only songwriter enamored with “On The Road Again.” The Grateful Dead’s custom lyrics made the words socially acceptable, yet different from the original recording or from Sebastian’s fresh prose. In a 1981 nod back at their days as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the Dead performed an acoustic cover of “On The Road Again” on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show. (It’s at ad free Vimeo, so click the play button twice.)

The Grateful Dead on the NBC Television Network. (2:58)

Country Jug Swings

Even when country music was still referred to as country-western, jug band influences peeked through. In the ’30s and ’40s, the “King of Western Swing” — Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys — incorporated elements of blues, jazz, pop, big band and jug band into their country swing songs. Wills’ mid-’30s recording of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” with vocalist Tommy Duncan, has been described by critics as “Jug Band meets Dixieland.” (Click on the album cover below to hear the song.)

“I Ain’t Got Nobody” – Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (2:42)

Those Village Jugs

Even Dozen Jug Band album

Before he became famous with the Lovin’ Spoonful, John Sebastian was part of one of the better known bands in the Village. It was a jug band made up of twelve people — appropriately named the Even Dozen Jug Band. A female singer, who played fiddle, tambourine and kazoo with the Even Dozen Jug Band, was Maria D’Amato. She achieved fame and acclaim in 1974, as Maria Muldaur, with the solo hit “Midnight At The Oasis.” Maria, who like Sebastian was raised in the Village, said that Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys, along with many traditional country artists such as Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb influenced her own early musical stylings.

Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band

Another popular jug band that came to the Village, after migrating to NYC from New England, was Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. Maria D’Amato hadn’t been with the Even Dozen Jug Band for long when, in 1965, she jumped to Kweskin’s Jug Band. Soon after, she married Geoff Muldaur — a co-founder of Kweskin’s group, and a storied washboard player and a jug band aficionado.

In 1964, when Maria D’Amato was still with the Even Dozen Jug Band, the group performed the jug band tune “Log Cabin Blues” on the NBC TV show Hootenanny. Two years later, with Maria a key part of Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, she and her husband Geoff Muldaur spiced-up the song “Chevrolet” on the Canadian TV Show Lets Sing Out.

In the video below, the first TV appearance is by the Even Dozen Jug Band — with a pre-Lovin’ Spoonful John Sebastian playing harmonica and, near the end of the clip, Maria D’Amato singing solo. That’s Jack Linkletter (Art’s son) introducing the band. The second clip highlights Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band with Maria and Geoff Muldaur performing an amusing folk-blues duet. Several classic folk instruments are on display  — washboards, washtub basses, a jug, and a hand trumpet.

Cut 1- “Hootenanny”: Even Dozen Jug Band. Cut 2- “Let’s Sing Out”: Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. (5:40) (See all of the musician credits in the video description at Vimeo.)

A Spoonful Of Hurt

“Good mornin’, baby, how you do this mornin’?
Well, please, ma’am, just a lovin’ spoon, just a lovin’ spoonful I declare, I got to have my lovin’ spoonful” (“Coffee Blues,” a ’20s song.)
The above lines, from Mississippi John Hurt, were the impetus for the name the Lovin’ Spoonful — the band that charted more jug band flavored hits than any other American group. Sebastian, Yanovsky, Boone and Butler played their own instruments at recording sessions (non-reliant on Hollywood’s elite backing band the Wrecking Crew.) The Spoonful valued originality: “We really tried to not step in the footsteps where we had just walked. We didn’t want the next record to sound like the last hit we’d had,” Spoonful bassist Steve Boone said.

From 1965 until ’68, the Spoonful charted eleven Top-50 singles. Seven of those made it into Billboard Magazine’s Top-10. That was impressive by anybody’s standards. The competition was formidable: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, the Hollies, the Kinks, Petula Clark, Donovan and the rest of the British Invasion fleet.

Speaking of competition, back in the U.S.A. Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Mamas & the Papas, Nancy Sinatra, Neil Diamond, the Young Rascals, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Bob Dylan and the Motown artists — Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and the Temptations — were all cranking out gold records.

The Spoonful’s music wasn’t exclusively jug band, the members of the group were not stuck in a rut, but the jug band sound shone through on many of their renowned recordings — “Do You Believe In Magic,” “Jug Band Music”, “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “She’s Still A Mystery,” and “Money.” Always creative, the band tackled folk/pop with “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” country with “Nashville Cats,” and straightforward rock with their chart topping “Summer In The City.” “Darling Be Home Soon,” one of their last chart hits, was described by a rock critic as “a gorgeous, soaring beat-ballad notable for one of the more unusual rhymes in rock and roll between ‘dawdled’ and ‘toddled’ plus it had a grafted-on orchestral arrangement.”

The Spoonful recorded different sounding songs for different folks.
Sebastian at Woodstock

The hits began slowing down for the Spoonful in 1967. The band unraveled when Zal Yanovsky left later in ’67 and John Sebastian quit to go solo in early ’68. Sebastian’s profile got a big boost at Woodstock in the summer of ’69. It was a wet and muddy festival. John was there as a spectator. During a break in the rain, organizers needed an acoustic performer to fill in while crew swept water off the stage to accommodate Carlos Santana’s power amplifiers. Sebastian’s appearance was magical. One enduring image from Woodstock is that of Sebastian dressed in a shirt and pants that he had tie-dyed himself. His set consisted of five songs (three were new material and two were Spoonful tunes). Sebastian hadn’t brought a guitar along, so he performed that August day with a guitar he borrowed from folk singer Tim Hardin.

“Welcome Back, Kotter,” with John Travolta and Gabe Kaplan in the cast.

Seven years after his Woodstock appearance, Sebastian had a Billboard No. 1 record with “Welcome Back” — the theme to ABC’S  Welcome Back, Kotter television series. A reviewer said, “Welcome Back” is a “sweet, wistful and playfully nostalgic tune.” Sebastian recalled that he was “out of fashion” by the mid-’70s. But, after TV viewers heard “Welcome Back,” they wanted to buy it. Subsequently, record stores received thousands of requests for the “Kotter” theme and Reprise Records rushed out a single and an album. It was satisfying for Sebastian to watch another of his self-penned songs climb to No. 1 on the Hot-100 — leaving in its dust the popular disco hits of that era. (Click Here to watch Sebastian sing “Welcome Back.”)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002

The original members of the Spoonful, John Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone and Joe Butler were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2000. Then, four years after Yanovsky’s untimely passing in 2002, the Spoonful was welcomed into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. It’s a credit to the band that, at the peak of their success in 1966, producers of a planned NBC television series (that became The Monkees) considered building the show around the Lovin’ Spoonful. The idea fizzled when corporate legal beagles became wary of potential conflicts over royalties and song publishing rights as a result of the band’s long string of prior hits. In the end, the imaginary band that was fabricated by Hollywood got the part.

Of the Spoonful’s biggest hits, “Daydream (Billboard No. 2 in 1966) has the most distinctly jug band sound. It was an innovative tune. Paul McCartney said that “Daydream,” with its upbeat and carefree style, was the inspiration for “Good Day Sunshine” on the Beatles’ Revolver album. In winter 1966, shortly after the “Daydream” single began climbing the charts, the Spoonful performed the song on Hullabaloo, a weekly music show on NBC TV. Sebastian sang and whistled while, in true jug band fashion, drummer Joe Butler kept time with a pair of wooden “bones.” (The video is at Ad Free Vimeo, so click 2x on the play button.)

Skiffle Across The Pond

Skiffle music was the foundation from which many future British rock ‘n’ roll stars built their careers. It was a peculiar time. WWII was more than a decade in the past, yet a drab austerity permeated life in financially beleaguered post-war Britain. Skiffle music that emerged in the ’50s and ’60s gave British youth a means of escape from the doldrums of day to day living.

The Vipers were a popular fifties’ skiffle group in the U.K.

Lonnie The Influencer

Harrison, Lennon and McCartney were Quarrymen

It began with Lonnie Donegan. In 1956, his record “Rock Island Line” inspired John Lennon and George Harrison to take up the guitar. A year later, Lennon’s skiffle group, the Quarrymen, was playing at a church when Paul McCartney introduced himself. About that same time, a teenager named Richard Starkey began playing a washboard in a skiffle group. Those boys would band together and become a big deal worldwide in 1964. As with the Beatles, mainly working class boys were drawn to skiffle groups. They were able to find inexpensive instruments, or they crafted their own instruments from household objects.

Ronnie Wood played washboard as a kid

Ronnie Wood, of the Faces and later the Stones, was another youthful skiffle musician. He was in primary school when he first scraped on a washboard in his older brother’s skiffle group. Some other skiffle playin’ school boys, who became famous rockers, are Van Morrison (Them); Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend (Who); Jimmy Page (Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin).

Two of the earliest of the successful British Invasion bands, the Searchers and Gerry & the Pacemakers, cut their teeth on skiffle. The honor roll of British bands influenced by skiffle music includes Cream, Blind Faith, the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Pink Floyd. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and the late David Bowie credited their formative years playing with skiffle bands as critical to their future success.

All roads lead to Lonnie Donegan

Putting On The Donegan

The big names from the British Invasion have achieved iconic status. However, it was that 25 year-old guitar and banjo playing “King of Skiffle,” Lonnie Donegan, who was topping the British Hit parade in the late ’50s and into the early ’60s. He racked up 31 hit singles at home and three of those reached No. 1 on the U.K. chart.

Donegan, along with his skiffle group, achieved another milestone — the first British male singer to score two Top-10 hits in the U.S. “Rock Island Linewent to No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1956. “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight?“) rose to No. 5 in 1961. That first hit — “Rock Island Line“– was a cover of a song from American blues master Leadbelly. It was covered again in 1970 by Johnny Cash, but Donegan’s version was the bigger smash). The British Acoustic Music Organization described Donegan’s debut single in this way:

“Rock Island Line” flew up the English charts. Donegan had synthesized American Southern Blues with simple instruments: acoustic guitar, washtub bass and washboard rhythm. The new style was called ‘Skiffle’ — and it referred to music from people with little money for instruments. The new style captivated an entire generation of post-war youth in England.” In 1961, Lonnie performed “Rock Island Line” on BBC Television. (The video is at Vimeo, so click 2x on the play button.)

“Putting On The Donegan,” Lonnie’s BBC series, ran from 1959 to ’62. (3:28)

Lonnie Put The Rock In British Rock ‘n Roll

Donegan’s pioneering spirit brought American music to the attention of European audiences. He recorded many American blues and folk tunes; for example, “Tom Dooley,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Midnight Special,” “Cumberland Gap,” “John Henry,” and “Battle of New Orleans.” Lonnie’s guitar licks and song choices inspired the next generation of British rockers. And his U.S. hits paved the way for American acceptance of up and coming British rock stars. A music historian said, “Donegan wasn’t part of the ’60s British Invasion, but he was its inspiration.”

Led Zeppelin Still Grounded

Jimmy Page is on any short list of the world’s greatest guitar players. His years as a British session musician, followed by stints in the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, are part of music lore. It is lesser known that, at age 13, Page played in the JG Skiffle Group. It is assumed the J in the band’s name stands for James or Jimmy, but the accuracy of that claim is difficult to verify. Jimmy and his group performed on a BBC children’s television show in 1958. The first song they sang was an old jug band standard, “Mama Don’t Allow,” that was original to the Memphis Jug Band. The second tune revisited Leadbelly’s American folk classic “Cotton Fields.” (It’s at Vimeo, click 2x on the play button.)

Young Jimmy Page and his JG Skiffle Group on BBC TV’s “All Your Own.” ( 5:23)

An American Talks Skiffle

The most successful of the British Invasion bands was the Beatles. One of the Beatles’ favorite American bands was the Spoonful. In spring 1966, when Sebastian and the Spoonful played the Marquee Club in London, George Harrison and John Lennon attended the concert. After the show, they went backstage to meet the Spoonful. In his 2007 interview with American Public Television, John Sebastian described the tremendous impact the Fab Four had on all of the American rock bands.

John Sebastian (2007 photo)

Sebastian discusses the Beatles. Produced by APT in 2007. (Length :45)

The End Of The Line

Call it “jug band “or call it “skiffle,” when the distinctive sound went mainstream it changed the musical landscape. Artisan Pictures has produced a short documentary that features interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Star, Roger Daltrey and Van Morrison. These famous British musicians describe the major impact Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle music had on their lives. (It’s at ad free Vimeo, so click the start button 2x.)

Video courtesy of Artisan Pictures

The End

That’s all we’ve got shakin’ today, folks!

Tobacco Tin Shaker

Thank yous and credits.

Jug band instruments photo at the top of the page. Visit America’s DIY Music- Jug Band

Guitar & Banjo photo. Visit Banjo Ben’s General Store

Spam can banjo & Tobacco tin shaker. Visit the Guitar Pick Collection

For interesting historical videos visit Artisan Pictures at Vimeo


1 visit(s) today

Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with QZVX.COM in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions. View other articles by Steven Smith
Please review our COMMENT GUIDELINES before posting a comment.

4 thoughts on “When Jug Band & Skiffle Rocked

    1. John…cool. my first exposure to Lonnie was about 1968. I bought an album of British hits…some I knew better than others. One cut was Does Your Bubble Gum Lose Its Flavor. It was very different but good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *