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.

Where Resistance and Identity Politics Intersect

The Tom Robinson Band tapped into similar folk attributes in their proto-new wave rock set. Applying meaty riffs to songs denouncing homophobia, racism, and sexism, the Tom Robinson Band were “woke” while most of the punk world was still sleeping. Their classic folk anthem, “Glad to Be Gay” (1978), from the Rising Free E.P., is an essential example of political punk with its street-level accounts of gay-bashing (both physical and institutional) spat out with venom by front-man Robinson. 

When the band played this song to 80,000 people at the infamous Rock Against Racism concert at London’s Victoria Park in 1978, many supposedly enlightened attendees were prompted to (re)consider gay rights for the first time in their lives. One such person was Billy Bragg, who had shown up to hear his heroes the Clash play, but came away more affected by the education the Tom Robinson Band gave him.    

That side of punk, where resistance and identity politics intersect, is where Billy Bragg has resided throughout his 40-year career. Indeed, even when he has ventured into more intimate and personal territory, he has done so with a humanitarian impulse that characterizes the folk music tradition. On his song “Upfield” (1996), for example, the singer brags that he has “a socialism of the heart”.

If folk informed Bragg’s lyrical themes of justice, rights, and compassion, punk provided the anger and energy in their expression. Punk also taught him that one need not look back, revive, or relive traditions as folkies are prone to do. Their timeless concerns can be addressed in the language of the now, in a punk language of youth dissent. 

Punk taught Bragg to play folk songs differently, too. His debut mini-album, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (1983), was a revelation on release, its seven songs in 16-minutes establishing the singer-songwriter as a new type of folkie and a new type of punk. Even Patrik Fitzgerald self-identified as a folk singer by playing an acoustic guitar, but Bragg strapped on an electric axe, turned up the overdrive, and played as though The Clash were playing with him. 

A song like “A New England” (1983), with its down-strum style and Essex vocal intonations, could sonically be just about any punk song from 1977—just without any band. You will not find much folk finger-picking in his early releases, either, only the “chop and clang” of his distinct rhythmic style.

Early British folk punk largely operated as an equation—folk + punk = folk punk. But during the post-punk years, the two forms were not so much added together as integrated into one another. Many had grown weary of the standard punk tropes that Fitzgerald and Bragg had inserted into their folk songs, but were unwilling to dispense with all that punk had taught them, such as assertive delivery, rule-breaking, and outsider cool chic. At the same time, in late ’70s Britain machine-based music was developing, one built around synthesizers, dystopian industrial atmospherics, or stock futuristic visions. Those post-punk bands most resistant to that new (post-)modernism came to be known as “big music” after a song by Scottish band the Waterboys.

The song “The Big Music” (1984) arrived with a video of singer Mike Scott (and his band) wailing quasi-spiritual bromides to the skies in front of a dramatic waterfall. The Waterboys were not the first to use idyllic landscapes as backdrops within their songs and videos, though. U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen had branded similar sweeping scenarios in their romanticist marketing, as had The Skids and Simple Minds. Their visual imagery often evoked nature, ancient myths, and isolated settings, but their vocals bespoke the passion of punk rather than the calm and quiet of traditional pastoral folk singing.

Sixties and early ’70s folk acts used acoustic guitars, pipes, and whistles to accompany their folk-loric lyrical musings, but the post-punk “big” bands used the same rock instruments they had used when playing in punk bands a few years prior. The Skids literally brought the folk flavor of Scotland into punk, evoking Braveheart-like rebel heroism in songs like “The Saints are Coming” (1978) and “Into the Valley” (1979). Few could decipher singer Richard Jobson’s garbled lyrics, but they could join in on the chorus and ride the wave of Stuart Adamson’s bagpipe-sounding guitar patterns. Later, Adamson would take his Scottish heritage sound into Big Country, whose name spoke for itself.  

Common to all the “big music” folk punk bands of the era was identification with their (usually) Scottish or Irish ancestry (even if once or twice removed). Moreover, their Celtic affectations attained even more of a folk musical correlation when exploited by neo-traditionalists like the Pogues, the Men they Couldn’t Hang, and (at least for an album) Dexy’s Midnight Runners. These pipe and whistle-wielding ex-punks were neither folk revivalists nor pure traditionalists, though.

Coming-of-age in a punk environment that proclaimed 1976 as year zero, negating rather than preserving the past, had become the prevailing attitude for these upstarts. So they struck a compromise by reinventing Celtic folk traditions for the (post-)punk era, in the process creating one of punk’s most enduring hybrids. The resulting Celtic punk has survived beyond the expiration date that has hit most punk rock, thanks largely to a US market committed to curating its Irish immigrant heritage. By combining Pogues-style insurgent folk with Angelic Upstarts-like oi punk, American-based heirs like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly have managed—and continue—to keep both flags flying.

Works Cited

Atins, Sam. “Interview: Billy Bragg – The Bard of Barking”. 25 November 2015.

Bragg, Billy. Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. Faber & Faber. January 2017.