Was it really like that?

‘Rock Island Line’ and the instabilities of causational popular music histories


  • Michael Brocken University of Liverpool Author




authenticity, representation, historiography, skiffle


In an attempt to re-think ways in which the popular music past is represented, Mike Brocken looks at Lonnie Donegan’s recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ and questions the historical purposes that this seminal recording appears to have served for subsequent popular music writers and historians. Donegan, according to Brocken, is afforded very little historical authenticity due to his flirtation with the mainstream, while ‘Rock Island Line’ is historicized only as a form of 'ur-history’ to apparently more authentic soundtracks that appeared to follow. By focusing more upon space, time and synchronic fact (and away from the ‘event’ that can be more easily narrated), Brocken suggests that our historical knowledge of this seminal recording has been constructed in very specific ways. He concludes by suggesting that the epistomological, methodological and ideological factors concerning the historiography of skiffle, Donegan and ‘Rock Island Line’ in serving ‘rock-ist’ and ‘folk-ist’ narratives, all require urgent investigation.

Author Biography

  • Michael Brocken, University of Liverpool

    Dr. Michael Brocken teaches popular music at the University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University. He also presents his own summer series for BBC Radio Mersyside ("Brock'n'Roll") and is responsible for maintaining the Robert Shelton Archive at the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool University of Liverpool 31 Vernon Road Chester CH1 4JT UK


Barnard, Stephen. 1989. On The Radio: Music Radio in Britain. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bradley, Dick. 1992. Understanding Rock ’n’ Roll: Popular Music in Britain 1955–1964. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Brocken, Michael. 2003. The British Folk Revival. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Bunzl, Martin. 1997. Real History. London: Routledge.

Clarke, Donald. 1998. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music: Second Edition. London: Penguin.

Dallas, Karl. 1982. ‘Lonnie Donegan & Skif?e’. In The History of Rock 7. London: Orbis Books.

Denselow, Robin. 2002. ‘Obituary of Lonnie Donegan’. The Guardian, November 5: 36.

Dewe, Mike. 1998. The Skif?e Craze. Aberystwyth: Planet.

Leigh, Spencer. 2003. Puttin’ on the Style: The Lonnie Donegan Story. Folkestone: Finbarr International.

McKay, George. 1998. DIY Culture in Nineties Britain. London: Verso.

Marwick, Arthur. 1998. The Sixties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moy, Ron. 2000. An Analysis of the Position and Status of Sound Ratio in Contemporary Society. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen.

Naylor, Stanley. 1957. 'Rock 'n' Roll—It's a Swindle...and These Men are Killing it Off'. New Musical Express, 1-7 January, 18.

Pfeffer, Murray L. 1979–2001. British Big Band Database Plus. http://nfo.net/brit/bs1.html accessed December 20, 2005.

Shepherd, John. 1985. ‘De?nition as Mysti?cation: A Consideration of Labels as a Hindrance to Understanding Signi?cance in Music’. In Popular Music Perspectives 2, ed. D. Horn. Gothenburg: International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1985. ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’. Subaltern Studies 4: 338–39.

Whitcomb, Ian. 1972. After The Ball: Pop Music From Rag to Rock. Harmondsworth: Penguin.






How to Cite

Brocken, M. (2004). Was it really like that? ‘Rock Island Line’ and the instabilities of causational popular music histories. Popular Music History, 1(2), 147-166. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.v1i2.147