The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast is a live album of a pair of collaborative concerts by Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, and Chris Barber that was recorded on November 20 and 21, 1998 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Donegan and Barber had played together at the very nascence of skiffle music in the mid-1950s and they were an strong influence on the young Morrison who formed his own skiffle band when he was just a schoolboy. Donegan was not very active on the music scene in the two decades leading up to the concert because of cardiac problems he suffered since the 1970s. Changing tastes in music also diminished the popular appeal for his live performances. The concerts came about as a result of Morrison’s desire to record a skiffle album in recognition of its influence on the music scene of his youth. When Morrison met with Donegan to discuss the project they decided they would like to perform together and record a live album rather make a studio album. The result is an exquisite recording that captures the energy and charm of the early days of skiffle music. Barber and Donegan’s performance captures the skiffle passion and Morrison’s beautiful emotional voice makes a wonderful complement. This is a special album that is more than a couple of evenings of mere nostalgia and is the absolute presence of a sincere love for skiffle music.
“Even today, skiffle is a defining part of my music. If I get the opportunity to just have a jam, skiffle is what I love to play.”
– Van Morrison
Skiffle music was wildly popular in Britain in the late 1950s when it is estimated that there were somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 skiffle bands. Many British musicians who went on to be famous in the 1960s began playing skiffle music, for example Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, and David Gilmour. The Beatles were also profoundly influenced by John Lennon’s skiffle background which was the foundation for many of their early songs.
The concert’s set list sticks to the American folk, country, blues, and jazz songs that that were at the core of skiffle’s early development, rather than some of the more popular skiffle songs of the time. The only exception is “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” which was written by Wally Whyton of The Vipers Skiffle Group. The presence of this representative piece emphasizes that skiffle music is all about having fun, a theme that permeates the entire album. The decision to use this diverse selection of American music to represent the skiffle genre expresses the vitality that was present at the very beginning of the style and demonstrates the versatility and potential of these magnificent songs.
I don’t think the album is presented in the same order as the show. Donegan begins alone, singing the traditional folk song made famous by the Carter family, “It Takes a Worried Man”. Beginning with the loose and easygoing voice of the architect of skiffle music sets the tone for the rest of the album. The music will occasionally get more complicated as the show unfolds, but the gentle introduction allows for the show to develop in an unrestrained and soulful manner. When the applause at the beginning of the next song suddenly ascends, it must be that Morrison has made his stage entrance to sing “Lost John”. Donegan and Morrison share the vocals of the old American prison song and their vitality is palpable. Furthermore, the snap of Donegan’s flat picking is one of the highlights of the piece. The cheerful introductions have been made and it is apparent that Donegan and Morrison are in the mood to sing together.
Dr. John joins the band on the piano for the slower, bluesy renditions of “Goin’ Home”, “Good Morning Blues”, and the “Outskirts of Town”. Although these songs are positioned at the beginning of the album, Dr. John came late to the show to play piano on the last few songs as he was playing a concert at Belfast’s Ulster Hall the same evening. Slowing down the pace from the quick tempo of traditional skiffle in the initial songs could come act as a kind of braking of the energy, but it has the effect of bringing a depth of feeling to the performance. Dr. John plays New Orleans-style piano in a way that expresses the incredible history of the songs by making it present in a few moments of performance.
The Dr. John numbers are followed by an energetic rendition of The Vipers’ tune “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” in which Donegan expresses his excitement by screaming in response to the fast guitar licks. It is a great segue to the quick skiffle tempo they will bring to the country blues and folk songs “Alabamy Bound”, “Midnight Special”, “Dead or Alive” and “Frankie and Johnny”. Donegan and Morrison change lead vocals with each verse, but Donegan also sings backup just behind the beat of Morrison’s lead, creating a wonderful harmonic blend. Donegan also points out that “Frankie and Johnny” was the first song that he learned to play and it also features a Dixieland trombone solo by Chris Barber.
The popular song “Goodnight Irene” highlights the range of Morrison’s vocals and again slows the pace before leading into the country songs “Railroad Bill”, “Muleskinner Blues”, and “The Ballad of Jesse James”. The drive of “Muleskinner Blues” is particularly exhilarating and it is the peak of energy that leads to the close of the album, but it is the final piece, “I Wanna Go Home” (also known as “The John B. Sails”), that brings an almost-sentimental ending to a perfect show. My own experience is that it concludes with one hoping for more. A wish that it will never end.
Van Morrison: vocal, acoustic guitar
Lonnie Donegan: vocal, acoustic guitar
Chris Barber: vocal, trombone, double bass
Dr. John: piano
Paul Henry: acoustic guitar
Big Jim Sullivan: acoustic guitar
Nick Payne: harmonica, saxophone, background vocal
Nicky Scott: electric bass
Chris Hunt: electric bass
Alan “Sticky” Wicket: washboard, percussion