The Art of Distortion: Tradition & Reaction in Folk & Punk

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A fiddler tunes. A woman on upright bass stretches her hands. The banjoist adjusts his strap while the mandolinist takes a drink. In this moment before a song, the possibilities of sound are only as limited as the experience and the vision of the artists onstage. From the lineup of instruments, you might expect a traditional bluegrass tune from such a group, but why not arrangements of Bach or a Rush cover or a surreal ballad in the style of David Bowie?

Photo: Lou D'Aprile of Louography

An instrument can really play any type music you make it play. It’s true! No guitarist is compelled to learn “Smoke On The Water.” There’s no law decreeing that only Brother Israel and George Formby songs can be played on ukulele. Nothing in the rulebook says anything about forcing yourself to learn “Dueling Banjos” once you pick up a five-string. The only thing that says otherwise is our shared cultural history; tradition shapes our expectations of art.

How an artist reacts to tradition defines their artform and it reflects on their perspective on the world.

Popular culture and popular music are much different than the folk music and culture of the pre-radio era, but some things remain the same: Songwriters churn out songs for the enjoyment of normal people, and most of those songs are lyrically simple, easy to sing along with, and the rhythms are easy to dance to. Children are raised with the artistic traditions of their parents’ generation, consuming stories and listening to music, and dancing. Some of those kids grow up to be artists themselves, either as professionals or as hobbyists, and they inherit all of these traditions. How are they going to respond?

There’s a spectrum of responses, really, and any given artist will probably move along that spectrum as time goes on.

The pull of nostalgia draws some towards preservation. Preservationists tend to prefer the old ways, and the classics are held up as the standard for all. It’s a conservative reaction, really (and I don’t make that claim with any insult or scorn towards conservatism). The idea that the elders were wiser than our own generation, that the products of their imagination are better than ours, that’s the basis for most traditional behavior and many conservative political movements. Anyone can enjoy the classics, but a preservationist goes a step further and imitates the classics with near perfect precision.

Perhaps they even feel that they were born in the wrong era.

But for every movement there is naturally an equal and opposite reaction, and for every call for a return to tradition, there is a call for rejection, defying the traditions and attempting to create something independent of the old ways and the old wisdoms. These works tend towards provocativeness and radical thought, defiance of expectation and “common sense.” Lots of what is considered Modern Art falls into this category, as do the abstract expressionists such as Rothko and Pollock, and the provocative performance artist Marina Abramović. However, the lifetime of such provocative art is threatened by shifts in tradition, which come with increasing swiftness in the age of worldwide communication. It doesn’t take long for what was once a rejection of tradition to become a new tradition in itself. And would the art piece “Piss Christ” be offensive in a world where urine isn’t a symbol of disrespect?

Not that you’re likely to see that sort of world any time soon, but the point stands.

There is a middle way between Rejecting tradition and Preserving it, however. You can choose to take the traditions and Distort them.

The influential theatre director Anne Bogart defines distortion in this way: “Distortion is a partial destruction… To distort something – a movement, a gesture, a word, a sentence – requires an act of necessary violence: the violence of undefining. Undefining means removing the comfortable assumptions about an object, a person, words, sentences or narrative by putting it all back in question.”

To put a finer point on it, an act of distortion takes what’s familiar and renders it somehow unfamiliar or strange. Disortion  means using the trope to defy the trope.

This sort of distortion is what sparked many early punk bands, who both figuratively and literally distorted the traditions of 60s pop songwriting (see Exhibit A and Exhibit B), and it’s this act of distortion that’s behind the present movement of folk. The arrangements of these independent bands were once relegated to skiffle, jug band and old-time groups. But instead, they’re performing music more structurally akin to punk than folk. Accordions, mandolins, upright bass and washtub bass, banjos and fiddles and resonator ukuleles, all of these traditional folk instruments are being tapped and combined to create uniquely modern music.

In some ways, this movement is more rebellious than traditional punk music (That’s right, I said traditional punk: it’s over 30 years old, so even punk has traditions). Playing acoustic instruments is cheaper than electric ones because you don’t need amplifiers or pedals or microphones, none of that heavy equipment; Acoustic instruments are more accessible to the struggling artist. Traveling is easier, too, because you’ve just got less stuff.  And an acoustic performer of this kind isn’t necessarily beholden to the gatekeepers (booking agents and talent buyers) that often work for music venues, either. You can set up and play your music wherever you want, whether you’re at a rock club or a squat house or out there in the street, and you don’t need to search for a power source.

The power source is you.

So plug in to yourself, and turn up the distortion.


But first, a declaration for the sake of transparency: I am a musician. I have played with a few of the bands listed below. Some of them are my friends, but they are the best examples of this recent folk movement that I’m aware of. Some of you may have heard this sort of music before, through different bands. This list is anything but exhaustive, and anything but long. If you’d like, please leave me some of your own recommendations in the comments below.

Aeon Now –
Blackbird Raum –
Black Death All Stars –
Bramble –
Flip Cassidy –
Ghost Town Gospel –
The Hobbo Gobbelins
Insomniac Folklore –
Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra –

About the Author:

Aaron J. Shay is a writer and performer from Seattle, WA, who writes and records music under his own name and with the scrappy street folk trio The Mongrel Jews. When not performing music, Mr. Shay writes fantastical fiction, a few blogs about what it's like to be an ambitious performer in the online age, and the occasional, exceptional tweet. For more information, check out