Folk Goes Punk

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 01.17.12 in Lists

How exactly does one identify “folk-punk”? There’s no easy answer, as different artists within the subgenre’s horizons arrived at its intersection via different journeys. One could argue that Woody Guthrie was not only the original folkie but also the original folk-punker; look no further than the iconic photo of Woody with a guitar bearing the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Boiled to its essence, folk punk is generally tradition-based acoustic music delivered with a forceful and rebellious attitude. But there’s room for quite a range of expression within that framework, from firebrand political rancor to subtly seething emotionalism to off-the-wall oddball fare. There’s a bit of all that, and more, in the tracks which follow.

Violent Femmes, “Blister In The Sun”

Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes

The folk: Cast amid early-'80s new wave, the Milwaukee trio stood out with its decidedly synth-free arrangements of acoustic guitar, bass and snare drum. There's an almost skiffle-like quality to their debut album's leadoff track, which against all odds became one of the most enduring songs of its era.

The punk: Gordon Gano sang with a caustic, quivering warble that bordered on psychotic - and then there was the sheer creepiness of the lyrics ("Body and beats, I stain my sheets, I don't even know why"). Those drawn to punk for its shock value took notice and embraced the band.

The Pogues, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”

The Pogues

The folk: Sprawling London ensemble the Pogues drew heavily on the Celtic traditions of the British Isles, employing instrumentation that included accordion, tin whistle and mandolin.

The punk: The Pogues played their music hard, fast and loud, shifting those traditional roots into manic overdrive. Furthermore, one look at frontman Shane MacGowan, a wild-eyed souse who sang with a scornful sneer, made it clear the Pogues were a far cry from Fairport Convention wannabes.

Billy Bragg, “Help Save The Youth Of America”

Talking with the Taxman About Poetry

Billy Bragg

The folk: Bragg's mid-1980s oeuvre felt in many ways like a revival of the 1960s folk movement, heavy on topical themes and socio-political commentary. Yet the peace-and-love hippies had long since given way to materialistic yuppies, a development Bragg decried in this forthright and memorable anthem.

The punk: Bragg played the role of solo troubadour, but the guitar he wielded was electric rather than acoustic, and his inspiration came as much from Joe Strummer as from Woody Guthrie (largely because he came of age in the U.K. during punk's classic era there). He remains, in many respects, the archetypal folk-punk musician, universally respected and revered by his peers in both camps.

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, “California’s Dark”

The folk: Though he made his name playing guitar in Rage Against the Machine, one of the hardest-edged punk bands of its generation, Morello took a strong turn toward the folk idiom on his 2007 album One Man Revolution, trading in electric barrages of sound for a dramatically stripped-down acoustic approach.

The punk: Morello used the understated character of his Nightwatchman persona to accomplish similar artistic goals in the end. The debut album's opening track, "California's Dark," painted a bleak picture of contemporary America, recalling the archetypal working-class punk of fellow Los Angeles band X.

Michelle Shocked, “Fogtown”

Michelle Shocked

The folk: A native Texan, Shocked was deeply rooted in traditional folk forms, as evidenced by her debut album The Texas Campfire Tapes, recorded live at the renowned Kerrville Folk Festival in the Texas hill country. That album included an acoustic version of "Fogtown," but there would soon be another story to be told with the song.

The punk: As a hidden track on her second album, Short Sharp Shocked, she revisited "Fogtown" as a screaming full-on punk number, backed by members of MDC (their singer even handled lead vocals on the cut). It left a lasting impression: Two decades later, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of the Swell Season took to singing it as a duet in their live shows.

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips, “I Will Not Obey”

The folk: The late Utah Phillips, age 64 when this album was released in 1999, was a longtime underground fixture in folk music and the labor movement when Ani DiFranco, 35 years his junior, sought him out as a collaborator several albums into her career. "I Will Not Obey" is a head-on expression of Phillips's anarchist views.

The punk: Anarchy is often identified with punk, so the crossover here seems natural. DiFranco, while generally leaning more toward acoustic instrumentation in her musical arrangements, had displayed a vivid punk spirit from the outset of her career, from uncompromising lyrics to a hardcore DIY aesthetic.

Elliott Smith, “Needle In the Hay”

Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith

The folk: Smith rode a solo acoustic guitar all the way to the Oscars in 1998, turning the volume way down when he performed his Best Song-nominated "Miss Misery" in stark contrast to Celine Dion's histrionic bombast on the TV broadcast. Smith took understatement to new heights before his untimely death in 2003.

The punk: Quiet as his music was, you could feel full-on punk fury bubbling just barely beneath the surface, and never more so than on the leadoff track to his 1995 self-titled album for the Kill Rock Stars label. The effect is like the explosion of Kurt Cobain's angst bottled up into a small stick of dynamite, just aching to be ignited.

Roger Manning, “Pearly Blues”

The folk: Not to be confused with the pop keyboardist of the same name from the band Jellyfish, this Roger Manning was a solo acoustic mainstay in New York when "Pearly Blues" surfaced on a live compilation of tracks from the Greenwich Village Folk Festival, alongside such folk-scene veterans as Odetta, Peter Yarrow, Maggie Roche and Christine Lavin.

The punk: That same year, "Pearly Blues" also appeared on Manning's first solo album, which came out on SST, home to such punk icons as Black Flag and the Minutemen. And in the song's final verse, Manning staked his territory clearly outside the traditionalist realm by declaring, "This is not a folk song."

Frank Turner, “Dan’s Song”

Frank Turner

The folk: Another in the camp of former punk-band blazers turned solo troubadours, Turner departed the English post-hardcore outfit Million Dead to pursue more acoustic avenues in the mid-2000s. The two-minute "Dan's Song" is just him with a guitar and harmonica, reflecting on days of youthful adventure.

The punk: Even at the microphone alone, Turner seemingly can't help but perform with in-your-face punk fervor. "Dan's Song" is anything but quiet and mellow; his singing inevitably segues into shouting as he reaches the chorus.

Bob Mould, “Wishing Well”

Bob Mould

The folk: After a decade at the fore of the ferocious Twin Cities punk-pop trio Husker Du, Bob Mould shifted gears sharply on his solo debut, stressing acoustic instrumentation and songs that sought out subtlety rather than bludgeoning force.

The punk: Darkness still loomed heavily in Mould's lyrics - even on a song with a hopeful title like "Wishing Well" - and his vocal style remained corrosive, intentionally inflicting damage upon the music's more delicate structures.

Chris Chandler, “Whole Wheat Left”

Chris Chandler

The folk: Chandler's delivery was prototypically folk in nature - he most often played solo acoustic, though his style was more aggressive than most. He was as likely to be seen busking on the streets as playing in a nightclub when he went on tour.

The punk: Unlike the heavily left-leaning folkies of the '60s, a true folk-punker was as likely to skewer the left as the right when addressing societal issues. And so it is with this song, in which Chandler pokes fun at the exaggerated environmentalism and political correctness of "tofu liberals."

Paleface, “Travel And Speed Fast”

The folk: Though Paleface rose from the circa-1990 New York "anti-folk" scene - he was roommates with Beck at the time - that community was quite folk-oriented in terms of acoustic instrumentation and troubadour presentation. Their roots were in the folk style, they just didn't have an "in" with the old-school Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

The punk: "Travel And Speed Fast" perfectly captures Paleface's ability to strike a punk-rock spark without resorting to electricity. His simple guitar-chord strums are rhythmic, fervent and foreboding, and his lyrical message is far from peaceful.

Mark Lanegan, “Museum”

The folk: Removed from his persona as frontman for melodic Seattle thrashers Screaming Trees, Lanegan turned dramatically acoustic on his solo debut The Winding Sheet. He reached way back in the American folk-blues lexicon on his cover of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," aka "In The Pines"; indeed, that's how Nirvana came to cover the song a couple years later. (Kurt Cobain played guitar on Lanegan's recorded version.)

The punk: Lanegan couldn't hide the punk-fueled pain in his voice, even as he turned the tempo way down on "Museum." The guitars are acoustic and quiet, but Lanegan sings with a heartache that soars and burns well beyond the borders of folk music.