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Let’s get this out of the way now: This is by no means a comprehensive history and analysis of folk-punk. Even if I wanted it to be that, I don’t think I’d be able to pull it off. This is just one person’s remembrance of a very weird time in DIY history, and what I think its ultimate legacy and effect ended up being. Unfortunately, if you’re familiar with folk-punk, there’s definitely not gonna be any deep cuts here. If I forget to talk about one of your favorites, I apologize in advance. Are we good? We’re good. Let’s dive in.
SMUCKER’S PUNK CRUSTABLES
If you were trying to figure out what folk-punk was and looked it up on Wikipedia, it’d be an okay start, but you’d be getting a very weird version of the story. While it is true that acts like Billy Bragg and The Pogues and more specific scenes like Celtic punk and Romani/”g*psy” punk could be considered folk-punk, that doesn’t really track when it comes to the connotations of the scene, the music, and its participants. The Violent Femmes are a little bit closer, but they lack the political bent that really defines a lot of this stuff to me; my good friend David Anthony (who I’ll be citing again later) pointed out that there’s also something to be said about the influence of 80s English anarcho stuff in the ultra-stripped-down presentation, and I definitely think there’s something to that as well, but none of it is folk-punk vis a vis folk-punk, you know what I mean? And aside from a few artists, like The World/Inferno Friendship Society, none of this stuff really connected with me so I don’t really feel comfortable writing about it at length. (As an aside, the first Violent Femmes album is easily in my top 20 records of the 80s, it’s just that fucking perfect.)
So I think that in order to really get an accurate picture of Folk-Punk Proper, you’d have to fast-forward to the mid-to-late 90s, particularly a couple interconnected pockets within the American Midwest and Southeast. The most important historical note here is probably Richmond, Virginia's (Young) Pioneers, who first formed in 1993. Picking up where The Hated and Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” had left off, they had the scratchy guitar work that skirted the line between folky melodies and noisy straight-ahead punk steam engine and, via being composed of members of bands like Born Against and Avail, they had the hyper-political lyrics and defiant smart-ass sensibility. In my mind, they're probably the ur-example of the folk-punk sound and ideology, and they're also literally thousands of times better than the vast majority of what followed, but they never really get the respect they deserve because they were always a bit more tied to the 90s underground emo and hardcore scenes (via releasing records on labels like Vermiform and Lookout!), and so didn't really get grandfathered into the legacy like they should have.
The founding of Plan-It-X in 1994 (oh boy) laid some more of the groundwork, but it wasn’t until about 1999 (coincidentally, right around the same time that [Young] Pioneers released their best album, Free the [Young] Pioneers Now!, and then immediately broke up), when they started releasing stuff by artists like This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, that I think you really start to see more artists developing a similar sound and aesthetic: really stripped-down three-chord songs, written in the vein of late-90s No Idea-style pop-punk but played either acoustic or un-distorted electric with minimalist arrangements and occasional melodic folk digressions, and ultra-plaintive, untrained vocals that yowled hyper-earnest interpretations of radical leftist ideals and intimate stories about tiny intra-scene drama.
This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb were unique in that they started out as a weird New Wave/country hybrid before vaulting themselves into the folk-punk sphere, but by the time of Front Seat Solidarity in 2002 I would say they were basically at the forefront of the sound and the movement. But they were from Pensacola, meaning they were way up in that Florida panhandle, and if you didn’t know, Florida is a big fuckin’ state— bands could spend three weeks touring just Florida if they wanted to, especially since traversing the state is difficult, slow going. Because of this, there was definitely a distinctly different vibe among the scenes across Florida.
If you headed east and just a little bit south, you ended up in Gainesville, one of the DIY punk meccas of the late 90s and early aughts. That’s where the aforementioned No Idea is based, and it’s where Hot Water Music is from, and their style of churning, intense-yet-melodic punk rock and gruff, howling vocals basically drafted the blueprint for the entire style that we now refer to as “Orgcore.” Although Against Me! were originally from wayyyyy further down south (Naples, to be exact), they relocated to Gainesville fairly early in their career and I would say that’s where they really found their early sound, which could be described as “Hot Water Music, but folk-punk.” I know that sounds pithy, but that early Against Me! stuff still sounds way more vital, immediate, visceral, and genuine than a lot of their contemporaries; the first time I heard Reinventing Axl Rose (No Idea, 2002) it completely blew my mind with its iconoclastic blend of electric chaos, folkish immediacy, and Laura Jane Grace’s devastating guttural roar of a voice and diaristic, eccentric lyrics.
But of course, Against Me! was the anomaly. Most folk-punk of the time stuck rather more closely to the This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb playbook, if not even more stripped-down and naive. You could go so far as to say a lot of that early-aughts folk-punk stuff was of a piece with the K-Records-twee stuff of the late 80s and early 90s in that it harnessed its amateurishness as a form of defiance and leaned into the childlike glee of it all, and in fact, when I first discovered folk-punk, I was little more than a small naive kid myself at nine or ten years old…
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