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What is folk punk? Here’s everything you need to know about the anarchist subculture

By Malavika Pradeep

Apr 5, 2021

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We previously introduced you to the terminology-ridden world of scam rap, where artists incorporated scam stories into their rap style, thereby creating a niche within its own audience. Such hybrid genres and subcultures essentially help keep the overarching movement intact. A similar case is that of folk punk—a hybrid between two revered music genres birthing iconic artists and influencing listeners since time immemorial.

What is folk punk?

Folk punk is the fusion between folk music and punk rock. The subgenre combines acoustic instruments and personal lyricism of folk music with anarchist learnings of punk rock to curate a unique music style and environment for listeners.

Well known for its minimalist and anarchic nature, the music often includes washboards providing rhythm rather than drums, with acoustic guitars as standard. The music may additionally feature folk instruments like banjo, double bass, ukulele or brass. Vocals are either sweet and melodic or nasal and extreme metal-harsh, both of which are sung off-key and juxtaposed in one song.

Often described as ‘low-tech punk’ and ‘do-it-yourself’ by critics and fans, folk punk takes the appealing elements from both folk music and punk rock to mold them together and conceive unconventional sounds with powerful lyrics.

Birth of a broad genre

Folk punk dates back to the 1970s when proto-punk bands like The Velvet Underground and T. Rex were influenced by folk artists such as Bob Dylan, Donovan Phillips and The Fugs. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the subgenre truly gained traction.

Folk punk was popularised in the early 1980s by The Pogues in Britain and by Violent Femmes in the US. While the genre has amassed mainstream success pretty recently, much of its credit goes to Plan-It-X Records of Bloomington, Indiana. The label was established in 1994 with the intent of articulating anarchist and DIY ideals as an alternative to capitalist art, music, and ways of living.

For artists, this involved making their own band merchandise, like patches or buttons as well as selling books, art, and music at little to no profit. For consumers, it meant getting a shot at living a ‘freegan lifestyle’—a no-waste lifestyle which included eating food that has been thrown out and residency at a community with little emphasis on private property.

Plan-It-X Records, through its music, ideals and praxis stood at the intersection between anarchism, class and queerness. An “archetypal Plan-It-X” artist had a low, gruff voice as they speak-sing while guitars, fiddles, kazoos, or trumpets play in the background. The label essentially helped unite the geographically isolated punk communities with common goals—thereby opening up a broad window for artists. It gave bands the freedom to choose between upbeat sound with banjos and violins or a more solemn approach with acoustic guitars and pianos without boxing them into a specific aesthetic.

The non-traditional sound of raw emotions

Lyrics are what makes folk punk unique and powerful. Similar to punk music, folk punk tends to be quite political with a focus on the radical left and anarchist side of the spectrum. Fixating on ideas of poverty, anti-capitalism, childhood and religion, artists engage with “radical queerness” through their lyrics and aestheticism.

Folk punk appears as an entire movement favouring social justice while standing up for the oppressed, homeless and marginalised. Nihilism, smoking, drinking, depression and squatter life are common themes as artists reject mainstream norms “in a world obsessed with lies and appearances.” Such emotional rawness with open disregard for musical ‘rules’, instead favouring self-expression, makes the movement a fitting listen in today’s world.

Anti-profit and DIY culture

Folk punk is deeply embedded in anti-profit and DIY culture. Spray-painted merch, self-recorded albums and a general preference to avoid the profit-based music industry altogether are trademarks of the subgenre.

A symbol commonly used in the folk punk music scene is the ‘anarchy heart’. Originating in North Florida, the anarchy heart is similar to the anarchy symbol except that instead of the A being set in a circle it is set within a heart. The heart symbolises the message that ‘love is freedom’ while the A within an O stands for ‘anarchy is order’.

Folk punk fashion is further described as “crust punk with a bit of rural farm labourer mixed in.” “Watch out for tats, piercings, gauges, jorts, rat-tails, whiteboy dreads, dyed hair and cut-down Discharge shirts,” wrote a fan on Quora. “Also, bare feet and homeless guys with dogs.” Filth is labelled as the “signature cosmetic” of folk punk. In terms of album art, it seemingly resembles “the kind of pictures a 14-year-old would have drawn in the ’80s for their D&D campaign.” “They miraculously make it work somehow,” concluded the fan.

Subgenres of folk punk

Celtic punk

Celtic punk fuses traditional Irish, Welsh or Scottish folk music with punk and rock sounds. Popularised in the 1980s by The Pogues themselves, common themes in Celtic punk music surround politics, Celtic culture, identity, heritage, religion, drinking and working-class pride. Instruments featured in this subgenre include bagpipes, fiddle, accordion, mandolin, and banjo.

Anarchist punk

Anarchist punk dips into the ‘protest song’ heritage of folk music to focus on anti-capitalist and anarchist political messages. Disassociating themselves from established anarchist currents, bands under this subgenre often support animal rights, anti-corporatism, labour rights and the anti-war movement. They focus more on their aesthetic that encompasses the entire creative process—from album covers, right down to their concept art—rather than their musical delivery.

Anti-folk

Also termed ‘unfolk’, the subgenre rose to fame in the 1980s as a reaction against the remnants of the 1960s folk music scene. With the purpose of mocking its perceived seriousness, artists of the genre observed the “rules” of music only to deliberately break them. In recent years, the anti-folk scene has found fewer venues in London with the closure of 12 Bar Club and Buffalo Bar, such as the annual Anti-Folk Fest hosted at Nambucca.