Punk Aesthetics and New Folk: Way Down the Old Plank Road

John Encarnacao
Books, Musicology
Ashgate (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series). 298pp. Hardback, Also in ebook PDF, ebook ePUB
ISBN: 978-1-4094-3399-6 (hbk)
Reviewed by , September 1st, 2015

John Encarnacao’s study of the diverse field of ‘new folk’ is a wonderful contribution to popular music studies. Punk Aesthetics and New Folk is as much a fascinating and accessible genealogy of some of the more interesting and obscure popular music produced in the last 30 years as it is a new history of the meeting of the folk and rock genres in the US, UK (and to a lesser extent, Australia). The book displays Encarnacao’s encyclopaedic knowledge of a vast array of artists, songs and albums. Gathering together such a number of artists, alongside his ability to draw links between sounds, lyrics, liner notes and album artwork, is an achievement of which Encarnacao should be extremely proud.

John Encarnaceo

John Encarnaceo

Less a genre than a collection of musicians working within a broad continuum of approaches and sounds, ‘new folk’ is a term that describes a diverse range of music. Encarnacao’s central argument is that ‘new folk’ draws as much influence and inspiration from folk music as it does the spirit and aesthetic of the broad field of punk music. This claim is embedded in a broad ranging discussion of a selection of new folkers, including Bonny Prince Billy, Smog/Bill Callahan, Animal Collective, Kes, Joanna Newsom and Charalambides. Encarnacao’s study is focused on positioning these artists within a historical and conceptual lineage: the ‘old plank road’ we travel across to get to this field of contemporary popular music takes us via both folk and punk antecedents, and it is the discussion of these contexts, rather than the chapters that explicitly deal with the new folkers, that is the most engaging aspect of the book.

Comprised of ten chapters, the first section of the book (three chapters) is a valuable discussion of ‘frames’, where Encarnacao sifts through the various discourses in which his work is positioned. Ideas like authenticity, ‘folk’, technology, genre, the music business – key aspects to both the study and production of popular music – are all discussed with clarity. The interconnected nature of the ‘new folk’ family tree is, in Encarnacao’s retelling, a fascinating extension to the histories of folk and punk, the subject of the middle four chapters. In a way setting the foundations for much of what was to unfold in the 1960s folk revival, the discussion of the extremely influential folk music collection The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) draws out the complex and contradictory ideas of authenticity, race, oldness and obscurity that the new folkers re-examine. Encarnacao provides close listenings to a musical pantheon including John Fahey, Bob Dylan, Sid Barrett, Vashti Bunyan, The Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley.

Artists that skip across the boundaries of musical amateurism and taste, like The Shaggs and Pip Proud, form an important part of this history. Similarly, other ‘outsider’ and ‘lo-fi’ artists, like The Residents, Daniel Johnston and Tall Dwarves – cult figures who play with ideas of obscurity, domesticity and sound quality – are given their due. One of the strengths of Encarnacao’s work is his discussion of voice. ‘Whether it is through vocal performances that ask questions about the nature of vocal performance, or through the fragmentation of the homogeneity of recording, we may recognise a desire on the part of some artists to at once show certain artifices for what they are, and to assert new models of authenticity, as constructed as these might be’ (196). The voice is central to the workings of popular music, and Encarnacao’s sustained examination of voice makes good sense of music that flouts convention in its vocal whisperings, rants, cracks and whoops.

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The inclusion of tables, providing a visual representation of songs or album structures, is a useful aspect of the book. Many of the artists under discussion deconstruct fundamental musical norms, challenging what constitutes an ‘album’ or a ‘song’? Exploring links between artists past and present, I found the close analysis of songs and albums (a significant feature of most chapters) slightly less interesting to read, but there is no doubt that these sections are valuable both because they underscore Encarnacao’s argument and demonstrate his deep knowledge of the nuts and bolts of what constitutes ‘new folk’.

The value of this study for both academics and fans shines through in the rich fabric of historical context woven throughout this book. Perhaps most fundamentally, Encarnacao’s work is a success in that it makes you want to revisit or discover this music.

One thought on “Punk Aesthetics and New Folk: Way Down the Old Plank Road”

  1. Peter James Warrington says:

    Great review. Must get Christmas present!

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