Photo of Billly Bragg: Bryan Ledgard / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Folk Punk: Three Chords and the Truth

When coupled with punk in the late 1970s to create folk punk, folk music’s most enduring and endearing traits—DIY, inclusivity, and proud amateurism—shined bright.

Folk music, at the epicenter of youth musical rebellion in the 1960s, was perceived as a spent force by the late 70s, a sedentary style’ played solely by aging Dylan fans and kids forced by their parents to take acoustic guitar lessons. The form that once provided the soundtrack to trade unions and civil rights marches was now deemed defanged and retrograde. Thus, when punk, exhausted from its first throes of three-chord thrashing, went seeking past genres with which to commingle, folk—at first glance—appeared to be an unappealing partner.

Nevertheless, from folk’s rich history, some punks of the day glimpsed kindred spirits, as well as stylistic components and an ethos not dissimilar from their own. Didn’t folk tackle socio-political concerns of the day—including the working class—from a perspective supporting the underdogs? Wasn’t folk, as the term delineates, the people’s music, its songs crafted for communitarian purposes and for uniting the subjugated in solidarity against oppressive forces? And didn’t folk have a DIY aesthetic, its expressions dependent upon few raw materials (often just a guitar), and driven by one’s creativity and self-sufficiency? Three chords and the truth? Folk had them. An independent superstructure of record companies, live venues, and marketing outlets? Folk had them, too.

Nevertheless, to just play old-time folk music was regarded as perpetuating the already stagnant state of the form, so punks re-invented it as “rogue folk”, or rebelled against its conventions with “anti-folk”. As early as 1976, punk poets like Patti Smith gave notice that there was life in the old dog yet, but only if it was injected with vitality and verve seemingly long lost.

That spirit is apparent in a tradition one might reasonably call proto-punk folk. Early to that tradition was skiffle, the fast-paced three-chord style that exploded out of British youth culture in the mid-’50s. Indeed, one of our most enduring practitioners of folk-punk, Billy Bragg, recently turned his attention to this much-neglected genre, celebrating its rebel instincts in his book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers. Amongst those who started their careers as skiffle musicians is a veritable who’s who of classic rock: John Lennon, Jimmy Page, and Van Morrison are just a few of the many that went on to shape rock history. 

Moreover, Bragg cites punk multiple times in his book, noting its similarities to skiffle. Besides the frenetic pace that Lonnie Donegan and others brought to their folk strumming, Bragg notes that the average age of skiffle players was under 18 and that their adaptation of a tea chest and washboard for bass and percussion, respectively, represented the essence of punk-like DIY.  Skiffle was a disrespected genre, too, seen as the expression of juvenile delinquency by a British establishment (a.k.a. the BBC) that refused to allow it airtime. Still, the genre prevailed, morphing into both folk and rock in the early ’60s.  

While much folk music of that period blazed a path for the hippy folk-rock that succeeded it, some ventured down more twisted routes, setting additional precedents for later punk journeys. Anti-folk performer Jeffrey Lewis traces this parallel folk history in a lively eight-minute lesson entitled “Antifolk Complete History of Punk Rock”.  Armed only with his battered acoustic guitar, Lewis sings and rants interchangeably about folk punk as a hybrid rooted firmly in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Starting with the beatnik adventurism of Harry Smith in the ’50s, he follows the chain that links irreverent and anarchic “head” humorists the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs to minimalist provocateurs Lou Reed, the Godz, and David Peel, up to CBGBtkick-starters Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye in the ’70s. In stark contrast to California’s mellow vibes during this same period, these proto-punks were noisy and unhinged, as well as radical in their (often) proud incompetence and faux “dumb” personas.

Equally challenged in musical prowess were the folk punk artists that operated on the outskirts of the London punk scene in the late ’70s. Neither accepted by the in-crowds of punk or folk, maverick “poets” like Patrik Fitzgerald, Jilted John, and the Television Personalities were rebel outcasts by virtue of circumstance. Folk fans thought their lyrics were doggerel and punk fans wanted some noise to pogo to. 

Yet, punk troubadours they were, suffering the slings and arrows (or bottles and spittle) of combatants and cynics, valiantly preaching forth to the unconverted. If their outsider status primarily defines punks, these were the truest of the true. Some of them fought back against the purists, too, singing songs about punk or about folk, not just to justify their existence, but to show that their rebellion was targeted beyond the usual topical suspects, at the forms, conventions, and techniques they both worked within and against.

Patrik Fitzgerald spent 1976 trying to find a foothold in the burgeoning London punk scene, hanging out at his local record store, Small Wonder, and auditioning for any band that might have him. One of the many for which he failed the audition was London SS, which featured a pre-Clash Mick Jones and a pre-Generation X Tony James. Frustrated, Fitzgerald withdrew to his bedsit with his acoustic guitar, where he started writing punk songs minus a band, a concept none had considered possible, never mind desirable. 

Small Wonder featured again at this point, in their record company capacity, as the only indie willing to take a chance on this curious folk-punk hybridizer. Today, the “Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart” (1977) E.P., with its three-chord thrash strumming and off-key regional vocal delivery, stands as a significant forerunner of anti-folk ideals. While folk had become associated with the image-laden wordiness of Bob Dylan or the pastoral romanticism of Joni Mitchell, Fitzgerald offered stark descriptions of desperate lives, alienation, and urban confinement. 

His material was anti-punk, too, as many of the best punk songs are, the title track of that debut E.P. subtitled “A love song for punk music”.  Such heretical use of the “L” word in the context of punk endeared him only to the blacker sheep within a subculture that by the end of 1977 had already established restrictive expectations, rules, and parameters.

If Fitzgerald represented punk attitude being injected into the customary folk format of the singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar, some folk punks reversed those roles, introducing folk ideals into punk forms. Oi music, for example, exhibits folk sensibilities within its punk expressions. Do an imaginary strip search of Sham 69 songs like “If the Kids are United” (1978) and “Hersham Boys” (1979) and one can hear the same organic community appeal, sing-along chorus lines, and empowering messages that are perennial features of folk protest music.