You can learn a lot about punk from a folk song…

[Multiple warnings apply. This may not be the longest post I’ve ever written, but it certainly sets a personal record for embedded media bits. Since I only link to existing song files, it is quite likely much of this linkage will soon be gone. And being a history of punk, plenty of what gets linked below the jump would qualify as in dubious taste, or as outright obscenity.]

Now this is a learning object. Jeffrey Lewis sings the evolution of punk from its origins in the darkest regions of American folk right through to its explosion in popular consciousness, situated against the backdrop of New York City’s Lower East Side.

I have plenty to say and link about Lewis’ “History of Punk on the Lower East Side”, but before I do, give his track a listen, it’s a little under ten minutes long.

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Jeffrey Lewis – The History of Punk on the Lower East Side
Found at skreemr.com

If you prefer, there’s also a version of the surprisingly youthful Lewis doing it up on YouTube.

I have more — a lot more — elaboration of this wondrous slice of musical history after the jump…
[In the time it took me to listen to the 9:40 of Lewis’ “History”, I was able to assemble this Seeqpod playlist, which you may prefer to listen to in shuffle mode and skip my pedestrian commentary. It’s got a quite a few tracks not referenced below. I’ll embed the player at the end of the post.]

Lewis traces the origins of punk to the landmark 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, a truly incredible collection of tracks, one that feels canonical and underground all at once. The music was originally issued between 1927 (the year electronic recording allowed for decent reproduction) and 1932 (when the Depression finally obliterated the market for buying it). The anthology is widely acknowledged to have been a huge influence on the folk music revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

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Clarence Ashley – The Coo Coo Bird
Found at skreemr.com

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Buell Kazee – East Virginia
Found at skreemr.com

Harry Smith is best known as an archivist and ethnomusicologist (in Lewis’ terms a bohemian freak with a monstrous vinyl collection) but as his Wikipedia entry and dedicated archival website reveal, he was arguably more famous with the avant-garde crowd as an experimental filmmaker. He was also a shaker in occult circles, described by Kenneth Anger as “the greatest living magician.” Now that’s a diverse career.

Next up are the Holy Modal Rounders who took the darker currents of old timey folk and brought it squarely into the context of New York City freakdom. The incomparable Oook alerts us to the Bound to Lose documentary, with a truly twisted trailer. (Was SAM SHEPHERD really their drummer?)

Their weirdest material from later in their career doesn’t seem to be readily available on the open web, but here’s a taste:

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Holy Modal Rounders – Euphoria
Found at skreemr.com

And this was the closest they ever got to a hit, probably because it was featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack:

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The Holy Modal Rounders – If You Wnt To Be A Bird
Found at skreemr.com

Next up in the narrative is an early incarnation of the Velvet Underground, who do typically get credit as an early precursor of punk music. They certainly strike me as one of the best examples of ‘poor’ technique nonetheless yielding wildly original and enduring sound:

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The Velvet Underground – Run Run Run
Found at skreemr.com

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The Velvet Underground – Beginning to See the Light
Found at skreemr.com

I once had a Philosophy professor who had been on the front lines of the sixties counterculture in California, and when pressed he would reluctantly drip a few anecdotes my way. He turned me on to The Fugs. Sad to say the message of these tracks have aged pretty well:

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Fugs – CIA Man
Found at skreemr.com

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The Fugs – Kill For Peace
Found at skreemr.com

I find The Godz harder to listen to than anything else listed here, though I like some scattered bits. Just one selection from them:

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The Godz – Walking Guitar Blues
Found at skreemr.com

David Peel was completely unknown to me before his star turn in Lewis’ “History”. He is a study in contrasts, the inner city hippie, the peacenik who indulges violent confrontational fantasies. And his take on the Lower East Side may be the first explicit expression of NYC punkdom.

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David Peel And The Lower East Side – ‘The Lower East Side’
Found at skreemr.com

Peel recorded his early records on NYC street corners, and even after he got a record deal and an album produced by John Lennon (if you see a vinyl copy of “The Pope Smokes Dope” pick it up for me, willya?) he kept his street-based persona. I saw one busker clip of him on YouTube, now removed, that was clearly from the past few years, and he is full of hilarious fury. This video of Peel’s answer song to “Okie from Muskogee” backed up by John, Yoko, et al… is a hoot:

On first listen, Silver Apples seem an odd fit in this history, but it’s worth remembering that NYC rock at CBGB’s wasn’t just the Ramones, it was also the Talking Heads. Some of their stuff sounds shockingly contemporary to my ears. My favorite track by them (“You and I”) isn’t online, but this is probably a better sample anyway:

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Silver Apples – Oscillations
Found at skreemr.com

The Stooges were from Detroit, but whatever, their sound did change when they moved to NYC, and it’s hard to imagine telling this story without them:

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Iggy Pop and The Stooges – 1969
Found at skreemr.com

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The Stooges – No fun
Found at skreemr.com

Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye’s anthology of 60’s psychedelic rock Nuggets may have been as influential in its own way as Harry Smith’s folk collection. Oooo, would I like a vinyl copy of it! It’s near impossible just to pick a couple tracks:

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The Count Five – Psychotic Reaction
Found at skreemr.com

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The Strangeloves – I Want Candy
Found at skreemr.com

One of the producers of the above Nuggets anthology went on to play guitar for Patti Smith — whose best work is woefully absent from semi-legal online sources:

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Patti Smith – Gloria
Found at skreemr.com

I love how Lewis characterizes the New York Dolls — as one of the first groups who made stupid seem like the new smart. This was the first song to get me into them, when I heard it performed by a cover band in Tucson:

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New York Dolls – Pills
Found at skreemr.com

There’s a wonderful exchange about that song when Dolls’ singer David Johansen actually stumps legendary Vancouver DJ Nardwuar the Human Serviette (who really deserves a blog post of his own) in this funny 2006 interview. We learn that “Pills” was itself a cover of a Bo Diddley song, and yes, Skreemr has the original. It ain’t exactly punk history, but I just gotta include it:

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Bo Diddley – Pills
Found at skreemr.com

Lewis’ “History” kind of careens to its conclusion from here, and thank goodness, as I’m sure that if you’re still clicking through this post that you’ve had more than enough. Before he wraps, he namechecks Richard Hell, Television (they played CBGB’s but featuring some truly epic guitar work), and fittingly he ends where many might have begun, with The Ramones:

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Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation
Found at skreemr.com

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Television – Marquee Moon
Found at skreemr.com

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Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
Found at skreemr.com

As threatened, this hastily assembled accompanying Seeqpod playlist. If you can point to additional or superior tracks to what is here, drop me a line — I’d like to hone this collection in the coming weeks into the ultimate online companion to the History of NYC Punk.

SeeqPod – Playable Search

8 thoughts on “You can learn a lot about punk from a folk song…

  1. Suicide — we need suicide in there:

    http://www.merryswankster.com/mp3/Suicide_Ghost_Rider.mp3

    They were postpunk before punk — a notable achievement. And they would be an essential influence to the No Wave period that followed. (and yes, I know the album is ’77 but as you likely know the performances were from ’71 on).

    But thanks for this collection, I love to read local histories of musical movements — so much more interesting in some ways than the less local histories.

    Also, Nuggets is a difficult compilation to pick from — nice choices.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis is great. He was just in town a few months ago opening for the Mountain Goats. Hilarious show. He sold out of his latest CD, but I had to go buy it online. It’s 12 songs by the UK punk band Crass, done in Lewis’s eclectic acoustic style. The (digital) liner notes are great, too. Lewis also sells his own comic books.

    And, be advised that the Drive-By Truckers are playing the Biltmore on June 27, with Leeroy Stagger opening. It’s gonna be sweet. Here’s my plug:
    http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2008/05/23/a-musical-portrait-of-class-in-america/

  3. What an amazingly intelligent, expansive, and downright effusive love letter to New York City.

    I had a feeling you would bring so many of the loose details and expansive echoes into focused and insanely intelligent history of the strangely eclectic, messy legacy called NYC punk rock –that I had very little sense of before this post.

    Listening to Television’s Marquee Moon as I write this reminds me of how cool it is to share the manna that fuels us with others.

    Thanks

  4. Tremendous post, despite my misgivings about the genre tag. Nuggets got me thinking about the Count Five, and that got me thinking about “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” and about how much I love Lester Bangs even when he’s groveling in Lou Reed worship or mindless rejectionland, and about how wonderful his essay on Elvis is, and how the essay on Astral Weeks actually tops it … and I got to wondering if what I’m really trying to do is just get to AstralEduWeeks. Or maybe just the bells of rhymney. Is there hope for the future?

    Anyway, Mikhail’s right: epic post. Thanks.

  5. If you’re looking into Suicide, “23 Minutes Over Brussels” is the track where you’ll find the most “punk rock” atmosphere, in that it is a moment of physical defiance between the band & its live audience. It’s a bonus track on the self-titled reissue (I picked up my copy in Canada, but I’m sure it’s available elsewhere as well), wherein the band performs a show in Brussels, opening up for Elvis Costello. At some point through the set, the crowd begins to chant “Elvis!” over & over, until Alan Vega (singer for Suicide), thrusts the microphone into the crowd, which in turn steals the mic from him & passes it around. Vega gets upset & begins screaming at them, lunging at them in the process. It’s one of those punk-rock-capsules-in-time that somehow managed to get captured on tape. Truly worth a listen, if you can get it — punk in action, not just in the sound.

  6. Marc – June 27 eh? The Biltmore is a pretty good room too. I’ll do what I can to be there.

    Mikhail & Gardner – glad you enjoyed it, it was a blast to put together, if an exhausting one. Now, on to the future!

    Brad – I will look for that track.

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