December 3, 2011 | Arts and Culture
Of Bicycles, Quail and Illustrious Fathers
folk punk in the northeast
article by clayton aldern
Something peculiar happens when you cross anarchy with a banjo: the resulting music is not only listenable, but also deeply passionate. There is a genre on the rise in Providence and along the coasts that makes a habit of cultivating this very breed. It’s difficult to pin down a clear definition for the genre or even an obvious origin, but the potent mix of emotion and anachronism, in which accordions and banjos join with drums and electric guitars, has recently come to be known as folk punk. As the name suggests, the genre combines the acoustic instruments and lyricism of traditional folk music with the urgency, energy and, more often than not, political contentions of punk rock. A seemingly odd pair, the combination is actually less mashup and more symbiosis. A natural coevolution has brought the genres of punk and folk to the same place. After all, they are born of the same thing: a need to express the everyday wants, needs, tragedies, mistakes, and hypocrisies of common people.
The Northeast, in particular, has evolved as a recent mecca of the genre. Along the coast and up to Nova Scotia, folk punk groups blaze and fizzle, morphing the region into a field of cacophonous fireworks. This constant rise-and-fall, blaze of glory pattern characterizes the career arc of many current folk punk bands, making it incredibly rare for a group to reach any level of recognition beyond the scene’s existing fanbase. Yet, in order to ask where this firecracker genre is going, we must ask where it came from.
Folk punk made before the turn of the millennium tends to relate to the current scene more musically than philosophically. Since its development was gradual and largely under the radar, its origins are difficult to trace. There is no “Rock Around the Clock” of folk punk. That said, there were a number of early groups that helped bring the genre to maturity. The musicality of folk punk came into its own in the early to mid-1980s in the United States and Great Britain simultaneously. Across the pond, the pioneer of the style was the band The Pogues, a group of Celtic punk-rockers who were among the first to bring mandolin and accordion on stage with electric guitar and bass. Their songs referenced traditional cultural tropes, like the Irish rover, and current events, like the religious violence that was terrorizing Ireland at the time. The Pogues reflected on these themes in songs with the impatience and irreverence of punk and the commonality of folk tunes. The history of the band has been marred with infighting—the persistent drinking problems of Shane Macgowan, The Pogues’ lead singer, led to his removal from the band—but their music has remained unsullied for decades.
Though the music of The Pogues and, in the United States, The Violent Femmes, was still largely classified as punk, subsequent generations of musicians have taken the lessons of the nascent sub-genre to heart. Since the turn of the millennium, folk punk as a style of music in its own right has exploded into prominence. Bands run the gamut between the two extremes: The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, often accompanied only by his guitar, sings defiantly about personal flaws and youth in a manner not exactly lyrically reminiscent of The Ramones, while the self-described “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello’s folksiness only shows in lead singer Eugene Hütz’s biting lyrics about the immigrant experience. This is a genre with duality but not conflict; folk punk is traditional and cutting-edge, and it makes no bones about embracing its roots even as it redefines them.
This concept of duality without conflict runs deeper than melody—as does the recent Northeastern incarnation of the genre. Noel’le Longhaul, Providence-based artist and member of former folk punk outfit Mallory, reflects on the recent movement’s ideology: “It’s the casting off of oppressive institutions, but through a reclamation of community. There is something that is ours, and that is each other.” Folk punk (and arguably, punk subculture in general) provides an arena for dissent. Music, clothing style, and intentional choices in food and transportation are expressive dimensions, and regardless of political agenda, there is unity to be found within the expression of dissent under these metrics. Even when lyrics are not politically explicit, folk punkers are connected through old-time aestheticism and lifestyle. A certain DIY ethic applies to the groups, due to both principle and practicality; a band associated with the musical genre is associated with the DIY movement.
Whether they’re hollering like goons on “God’s Work” or almost-serenading in “Devil in the Moonlight,” Mallory provides a good point for grounding yourself in an attempt to understand the genre in its recent local manifestations. The group reflects many of the aforementioned defining qualities: anarchist tendencies, the staple DIY aesthetic and functionality, a certain franticness of music and message. Notably, Mallory evolved with the genre itself. There was no initial connection to the scene; rather, their early “acoustic anarchist folk music,” as retrospectively dubbed by Longhaul, “placed an emphasis on lyricism, harmony and cohesiveness.” Portability was key, as many Mallory tours were by bicycle. As members of the group came to identify as anarchists (some more so than others), a transition to punk energy was matched by a reflective shift in the shows’ spirit. As energy and music became more and more frantic, Mallory struggled to keep up with itself. The band was a quarter-stick of dynamite: a caricature of its own urgency.
The Northeast folk punk scene is largely archived via Folk Routes, a self-described anarchist networking and distribution syndicate. A perusal through folkroutes.org reveals figureheads of the folk punk genre: Mallory, Thy Courage Quail, Squinch Owl, Sons of an Illustrious Father, Cud Eastbound, Wood Spider.
Listening to the above artists offers an introduction to the power of the genre as a musical form. Sofia Albam’s voice is half butter-knife, half buzzsaw. Bonfire-smokey, it slices and hacks, lacerating the airwaves through which it floats. Albam, one-fifth of Sons of an Illustrious Father and one-fourth of Squinch Owl, provides a wealth of musical talent to each group: accordion, acoustic guitar, viola, banjo and, of course, the wonderfully shrieking vocals. When she sings, “I’ll survive somehow,” in Sons’ “240 Miles,” the sense of bitter yearning is palpable. Thy Courage Quail starts singing about sourdough bread in “Down Down Down,” and you want to sob. Buried beneath anarchy and old-time image lays something incredibly genuine and identity-driven. Longhaul reminds us, “This is a very specific outlet for a very specific group of people. Young, queer, American anarchism and folk punk [evolved together].” Like-minded thinkers gravitate toward one another. Here, the music and associated scene provide a means for establishing unity.
Something else peculiar happens when you cross anarchy with a banjo: the authenticity of each contributor somehow remains. Folk punk’s strictly DIY aesthetic and ideology ingrain themselves deeply within the genre. Much is dependent on consciously acknowledging identity. As Longhaul puts it, “groups that self-identify as folk punk would self-identify as anarchist,” yet the genre itself is “not necessarily anarchist, but necessarily DIY.” There’s an emphasis on process, on bikes and bread and fighting the good fight and saying whatever and as much as you can, as quickly as possible.
In “Ten Things,” early folk punk artist Paul Baribeau captures what is perhaps the root of the scene’s urgency: “Right now, all you have is time, time, time, / yeah, but someday that time will run out. / That’s the only thing you can be absolutely certain about.” Living moments after its own Big Bang, folk punk has a tremendous, blindingly hot, and completely unstable energy; it is no wonder bands cannot stay together for long. Yet, perhaps as things begin to calm down and coalesce, groups will come together that would not have been possible without these early, defining, ephemeral relationships. And if something past this grassroots grassfire is indeed on the horizon, it will be well worth the wait.
Paul Baribeau – “Ten Things”
Rosa – “Milk Crates”
Mallory – “Dissident”
Squinch Owl – “Meet Me There”
Thy Courage Quail – “Down Down Down”
Sons of an Illustrious Father – “240 Miles”
Wood Spider – “Is It Strange?”
Blackbird Raum – “Valkyrie Horsewhip Reel”
Dandelion Junk Queens – “Growing Up is Giving Up”
The Hail Seizures – “Daddy”