The Southsea Skiffle Orchestra has proved a huge success since forming out of a workshop at a festival for the over-60s. CHRIS BROOM went along to one of its free concerts to find out why.
When you think of an orchestra, most would think of something like the London Philharmonic, or our own region’s Bournemouth Symphony.
But perhaps not a room full of pensioners dressed in check shirts and banging out ramshackle versions of primitive songs from the ‘40s and ‘50s on washboards, ukuleles, kazoos, jugs and various other more traditional instruments.
This is The Southsea Skiffle Orchestra, which boasts more than 30 members dedicated to playing the pre-rock’n’roll music. And they have recently started putting on free concerts at Portsmouth Guildhall – the first one was earlier this month.
This year marks exactly 60 years since skiffle hit the UK charts and to celebrate, the SSO play many of the genre’s best-known songs including Freight Train, Rock Island Line, Worried Man, Midnight Special, Sporting Life and Putting On The Style.
Just like the big names Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt, Ken Colyer, The Vipers and all the stars of the 2Is Coffee Bar in Soho, SSO have raided the American past, folk, blues and country, for a range of other tunes – many with ‘singalong’ choruses for the audience to join in.
The orchestra consists almost entirely of Pompey pensioners and at full strength has a combined age of more than 2,000 years.
Portsmouth’s own professor of pop, musician and musical historian Dave Allen was instrumental in the orchestra’s creation.
The 66-year-old says: ‘I was asked the year before last to run a workshop for the 60-plus Festival. The previous year I had done one where I linked it to the Pompey Pop exhibition in the Guildhall – it was a memories workshop and it was quite good fun, but to be honest people just enjoyed getting together and talking about their memories of when they saw The Rolling Stones play here or whatever, but not a lot actually came out of it.
‘When they came back to me and asked me to do it again, I said I wanted to do something different, something to get people playing – not difficult music, and you don’t need to already be a player to join in.
‘It went down really well and we had about 20 or so people, then I repeated it at the Portsmouth Festivities last summer and we got a few more.
‘The Guildhall have been lovely about it, letting us use this space once a month.
‘It’s just developed from there, the way it’s grown has been absolutely delightful.’
The group meets once a month in the cafe area on the first floor of Portsmouth Guildhall to practice, and before now had only ever done a couple of charity shows.
‘We got a couple of offers to play live at charity events. I didn’t know if people wanted to play live in front of an audience or not, but they did.
‘We did a Tom Prince Cancer Trust show and a food bank show in Somers Town.
‘The guys have really enjoyed playing live and I think they’re quite happy to keep going.
‘We don’t all walk around on Zimmer frames and dribbling. There are people who come here who are over 70 and what we are doing here as much as anything is saying that we still get out and do something.
‘We are very lucky that we are of that generation that has had everything and it’s true, but there is still an opportunity to put something back.
The opening concert proved popular, drawing a decent crowd – including the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Councillor Frank Jonas, who has his chambers upstairs from where the group rehearses.
‘The Lord Mayor heard us rehearsing one week so he popped down, not in his chains or anything, just to see what was going on He enjoyed it, so I formally invited him to the first concert.’
Dave himself is slightly too young to have bought the records first time around, but he recalls: ‘There’s a song called Last Train To San Fernando that I remember really well from that time.
‘I was about seven or eight when skiffle was big, but it has its basis in American blues and that’s something I did later fall in love with, so the connection for me is quite a natural one.’
While the music is often simpler than what Dave usually play,s he has an apt simile for skiffle: ‘I like to say it’s like a very rich pudding. You enjoy it enormously, but you have to lay off after a while so you don’t get tired of it.’
But he also appreciates that the music has a role beyond just the love of performing some great tunes.
‘I think with us, the fact that we’re largely a group of pensioners having a great deal of fun with music from our background, the communal side of it for us is really important.
‘We are doing it with absolutely no pressure, we aren’t pushing to go anywhere, we’re not doing this to get famous, all we ever do is play for free – we don’t want an agent, we don’t want a manager or any of that.’
However, he does hope that they can help spread the appeal of this musical form to a new generation of fans.
‘It would give us enormous pleasure if more young people came along and enjoyed it and wanted to talk to us about it.
I often talk to young people about the rock bands I’ve been involved in, but when I talk about skiffle they often look bewildered.’
The next free concert is from midday to 1pm on Tuesday, April 19, followed by one more on Tuesday, May 31.
For more information about the group go to Southsea Skiffle Orchestra’s page on facebook.com