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Home > Popped Clogs

Popped Clog: Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan - son of a dustman, king of skiffle - has died. He was 71.

4 November 2002

What on earth is Skiffle?

The name 'skiffle' is derived from the German word for ship: 'schiff' and the first true skiffle instrument was a pair of silk tights, strung in a double-loop around an unconscious cabin boy's thighs.

The captain (or 'kapitan') would use the rough skin of his elbows across the stretched fabric to create a soft, resonant plucking sound (or 'winkelstückton') - and he would use the movement of his pelvis to supply a driving, slapping 4:4 rhythm (in which we see the origins of the 'slap bass' made famous by Mark King from Level 42, amongst others). The crew would gather round the captain and bang large, heavily-spiced sausages against their foreheads, occasionally shrieking things like 'wiederholen, wiederholen!' or collapsing into a distracted slumber.

Lonnie Donegan, as a young Glaswegian in the 1930s, was determined to follow in his father's footsteps as a long-distance swimmer. In 1946, aged fifteen, he set out to swim to Finland, and was picked up by a German freighter. 'Within minutes', Donegan recalled some 50 years later, 'the ship's doctor had towelled me down, given me a glass of brandy, and eased me into a pair of sheer stockings and handcuffs. Sometimes I still dream in German'. Donegan spent his formative years in the German merchant navy, learning the old Bavarian seal-gutting songs, and contracting Hepatitis C.

After a spell in Newhaven liver clinic, Donegan fell off a tram. This incident is of profound significance in the development of Skiffle. By the late Seventies, the public's interest in Skiffle had declined, but there were still pockets of interest, many of them in East Anglia.

And that, in a nutshell, is Skiffle.

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