The prolific VAN MORRISON has just released a new album… by our reckoning his 44th studio set and for this one he’s gone right back to where it all started for him. You see his new ‘Moving On Skiffle’ is an album inspired by skiffle (the clue’s in the title, of course). For the uninitiated (i.e. anyone under 70!) skiffle was a music craze that swept Britain in the mid-1950s. It was a rough, home made kind of music that had its roots in the African-American jug bands of 1920s New Orleans, who sidestepped a lack of funds by using washboards, tea chests, jugs and tubs to deliver their own take on country music and blues.
This music was brought to Britain by trad jazzers like Ken Colyer and Chris Barber and by the mid-50s, youths the length and breadth of the country, bored with post war drabness and austerity, started to form skiffle groups using homemade instruments – like those aforementioned washboards and tea chest basses. Scotsman Lonnie Donnegan embraced the genre and soon became known as “The King of Skiffle”. Soon countless young lads were imitating him. Notable amongst them was a certain John Lennon who led his own skiffle group, The Quarrymen while over in Belfast a young George Ivan Morrison became infatuated with the genre too. He says: “I was still in school when I performed with a skiffle band – a couple of guitars, a washboard and a tea-chest bass. When I heard Lonnie Donegan’s version of ‘’Rock Island Line I intuitively understood what he was creating. I knew that it was what I wanted to do. It was like an explosion.”
In his distinguished career, Morrison has regularly revisited skiffle and always honoured the debt he owes to it. In 1998 he recorded a live album with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber and he’s also performed at tribute concerts to both Donegan and Leadbelly, a pioneer of country blues who was revered by the early skiffle community.
So yes, skiffle and its sources, country and blues, have always been there in Morrison’s music but now he feels the time is right to release a whole album devoted to the genre. Thus ‘Moving On Skiffle’ sees our man offer 23 “skiffle classics” – like ‘Freight Train’ . The song was originally brought to the UK by Chas McDevitt, another of Morrison’s early heroes. The song opens the album and like the other 22 cuts its treatment is a little more sophisticated than the original versions – but it’s still earthy and “for real” – true to the spirit of the original skifflers. Indeed Morrison delivers most of the songs “ straight” – though there are a few embellishments, as on the 1920s blues ‘Mama Don’t Allow’ which he re-dubs ‘Gov Don’t Allow’, giving him the opportunity to air a few grievances. Well, this is a Van Morrison album!
Other highlights include a version of the traditional folksong, ‘Gypsy Davey’, ‘Greenback Dollar’ which has rockin’ doo-wop flavoured feel, ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ to which Morrison adds choruses of the gospel standard, ‘Amen’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ – a tribute to another of the singer’s early heroes, Hank Williams. On that one and indeed right through the whole album, you can hear the enthusiasm and joy – things which some critics have said have been missing from much of Morrison’s work in recent years.
‘Moving On Skiffle’ is a clearly a labour of love but there is a message in the music. Many of the chosen songs were born out of various marginalized communities’ search and desire for freedom. Morrison says: “Freedom is not a given anymore. You have to fight for it. That’s where the blues come in.”
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