Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
A word once used in the USA to describe music played by those too poor to buy musical instruments, who used washboards, jugs, etc; a blues medley called 'Hometown Skiffle' was issued on Paramount in 1929, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Hokum Boys and others: it was also one of the first samplers. The term became better known describing a late-1950s British pop genre important as a bridge between the trad jazz fad and UK rock of the 1960s, growing out of the rhythm sections of bands like those of Chris Barber and Ken Colyer.
Lonnie Donegan was the undisputed king, sparking off a movement that took on craze proportions: 'A strange bedlam was taking over which had nothing to do with anything we had previously known' (quoted in Iain Chambers's Urban Rhythms: Pop Music And Popular Culture '85); Donegan's first hit 'Rock Island Line' (recorded 1954) was regarded as a novelty, but backed with 'John Henry' it was a top 10 hit in the UK and the USA in 1956 (satirized in the USA by Stan Freberg, a sure sign of something or other). The Vipers had several hits, discovered electricity and went on to become the Shadows; Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey made no. 10 UK (top 40 USA) with Libba Cotten's 'Freight Train' (there was a compilation Freight Train on Rollercoaster). Skiffle's big hits relied on U.S. folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy etc, and appealed to amateurs because of its relative simplicity, with acoustic guitars and washboards, the bass often a tea-chest and a single string on a broomstick; it was a training ground for musicians such as Martin Carthy, Cyril Davies, Alexis Korner, Tommy Steele, Albert Lee, the Beatles and many more. It was washed away suddenly: Donegan lasted longest, vanishing from the top ten in 1962 with the advent of UK pop music that conquered the world; hence all subsequent pop owed something to skiffle. McDevitt's book Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story '97 included potted histories of the players of note.