A rough guide to folk-punk

After all these years, I’ve finally made it down to Tasmania. The thing that brought me down here, happily, is HOBOFOPO; a four day festival dedicated to that most wonderful of musical styles – folk-punk.

Wonderful it may be, but folk-punk remains a pretty obscure musical niche. Many people over the years who have seen me perform or asked what kind of music I play have assumed I must have invented the term. As I got ready to leave Brisbane and head down here, a few people were surprised there are enough folk-punk acts in Australia to make up a festival.

But in fact, the folk-punk connoisseur (like myself) could tell you that even in this niche genre, there are a number of distinct styles that fit under the folk-punk umbrella.

Our first category is the singer-songwriter with obvious punk influences. In this group we can place maybe the original folk-punk Patrick Fitzgerald (with his simple guitar playing, tales of punk love and out of tune singing), Billy Bragg (rhythmic electric guitar and again a relaxed approach to hitting the right notes vocally), Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains (screaming and thrashing an acoustic guitar), myself and many more.

Another category, in some ways an extension of the first, is the whole band that plays obviously punk-inspired music but on all or mostly acoustic instruments. Examples vary from the fast-strummed guitar and violin duo Ghost Mice, to the more full band setup of a group like Defiance Ohio (violin, cello, electric guitar, drums), to the intense medieval crust punk of Blackbird Raum. At HOBOFOPO, an example would be Tassie’s own Lordy Lordy.

A third style is traditional folk music sped up and electrified. These can be traditional songs or trad-inspired originals, or often a mixture of the two. The originators of this style are The Pogues, and there are plenty of other examples, from American-Irish acts like Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, to Australian equivalents Mutiny and Roaring Jack, hillbilly punks This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, gypsies Gogol Bordello, or at HOBOFOPO bushpunks Handsome Young Strangers or Tasmanian historians The Dead Maggies.

A fourth style, becoming increasingly common, is the acoustic side-project of the punk singer. Satirical punk blog The Hard Times has great fun with this phenomenon. Originally it was most commonly singers from emo bands discovering a more intimate way to connect with their audience – Dashboard Confessional, Jonah Matranga and Owen being the pioneers, City and Colour a similar recent example. But increasingly it has come to mean punk and hardcore singers growing beards, putting on flanellette shirts and playing country-tinged folk. Frank Turner is the most successful example, but he is only one of seemingly legions – Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour each year takes half a dozen examples on tour; in Australia examples would include ex-Conation singer Jamie Hay’s Fear Like Us project, ex-Disables singer Jud Campbell or former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh. There actually aren’t any examples of this on the HOBOFOPO lineup though there is no shortage of them around and this is probably the most popular strand of folk-punk. But this style kinda exists as a niche of the mainstream punk scene and doesn’t really take on the name or the spirit of the “folk-punk” genre (I’ll explain later).

You could even add another category – bands like The Smith Street Band, Camp Cope and Against Me!; whose music doesn’t really resemble folk very much but who hold on to the label in some ways because they started out as acoustic acts.

folk-punkSo there is a more in-depth analysis of folk-punk styles than anyone was really asking for. But you know, that still doesn’t quite get to the essence of folk-punk. And this is why: while folk and punk are both genre names that describe certain musical characteristics; they are also both more than that. Folk and punk are both ideologies that represent ways of thinking about music.

Folk, as Pete Seeger would describe it, is music “for the people, by the people” – a proudly proletarian artform that rejects virtuoso musicianship or high artistic concepts and instead embraces a recognisable, easy to replicate style and singing about everyday people’s lives. It sees music as a communal resource – songs are “traditional” and able to be performed by anyone rather than a songwriter’s intellectual property; and songs are often developed for use by the community around them – like protest songs for a certain campaign or songs written about a particular place (famous examples of the latter being Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Our Land and The Seekers’ I Am Australian).

Punk meanwhile is an ideology based on Do-It-Yourself – a rejection of rockstar idols and the traditional music industry. Sniffin’ Glue writer Mark P famously printed three chord shapes then wrote “now go form a band”. His iconic publication meanwhile, was hand-collaged and printed on a photocopier. Punk is about making your own bands regardless of technical ability, making your own publications (since the mainstream media is rarely interested in punk bands), opening your own venues (that represent independent values rather than run for a profit), and putting out your own records on your own independent labels. Punk is about rejection of mainstream society’s values and (sometimes) creating alternatives – outrageous fashion, communal share-houses, anarchist politics.

There are large crossovers between the two ideals – both have a long history of political protest songs and benefit gigs, both eschew superstars and technical brilliance (Mark P’s three chord call to arms echoes Harlan Howard’s much repeated phrase “three chords and the truth”), both see music not purely as art for art’s sake but as a means to something bigger.

And folk-punk even more combines the two traditions. Want to see what songs as a communal resource looks like? Go to a folk-punk show (like one I recently played at in Brisbane) and witness multiple performers play Johnny Hobo songs as the crowd sings every word. The guy who wrote those songs doesn’t even play them any more, yet they live on as folk-punk standards. This is not limited to one songwriter either. Folk-punk carries on the folk practice of communal sing-alongs and traditional songs – keeping alive both folk and folk-punk classics. Bands like The Pogues and Weddings Parties Anything (plus many many more) do punked-up versions of old folk songs, while popular folk-punk songs become standards – and not just Johnny Hobo. I can recall shows where Billy Bragg, Defiance Ohio or Andrew Jackson Jihad became room sing-alongs. Or once I played a show where the climax was every band getting together for a mass jam and singing of Blackbird Raum’s Witches.

Folk-punk also continues folk traditions like protest songs (Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs mirrored in the riot-folk collective or Billy Bragg) and travelling songs (the ghosts of ramblin’ men like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie alive in countless songs about hitching or the beauty of the road), even the hobo lifestyle (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Hallelujah I’m A Bum transformed into Johnny Hobo’s songs like Home Sweet Homeless and the entire oogle subculture).

Meanwhile punk’s DIY spirit is amplified in folk-punk. Doing your own recording becomes simpler when it’s just acoustic instruments (Australian group Mace Face did their one and only recording on a Sydney to Newcastle train journey), as does finding venues for shows (parks, cemeteries and all-night laundromats become concert halls).

So as musical style or philosophy, folk-punk has carved out its own niche of the music world. It receives very little attention from the broader music industry; even its most legendary acts are virtually unknown outside of this small subculture. The earnestness and the celebration of mundane subject matter and musical amateurishness means that is irredeemably uncool.

But I love folk-punk. I love it for all of the reasons I have just listed. I love it because it is about having something to communicate and creating spaces where that communication can take place. It is a pretty narrow sphere of music and at times it is clichéd to the point of ridiculousness – I think potentially that’s why over the years so many acts are short-lived and people move on to other styles. And yet I trudge on, hitch-hiking around with my acoustic guitar and simple songs. Uncool, obscure and limited as it may be, folk-punk is a tradition I am proud to listen to and to be a part of.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A rough guide to folk-punk

  1. Thanks Andy for a touching homage to both folk and punk.
    It reminds me of this lyric …

    “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
    Down the foggy ruins of time
    Far past the frozen leaves
    The haunted frightened trees
    Out to the windy bench
    Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
    With one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea
    Circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate
    Driven deep beneath the waves
    Let me forget about today until tomorrow”
    – Bob Dylan

  2. This is great. Well written and spot on. Love it.

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