The Anarchist Folk Ideals of Blackbird Raum
by Devon Léger
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – The image of the anarchist has traditionally been an image of menace. Whether a black-clad, masked, bomb-throwing terrorist in the early 20th century, or a black-clad, masked, molotov-cocktail throwing rioter in the early 21st century, it’s remarkable how consistent the stereotype has remained over the years. The implied violence of these images lies at the heart of the fear many in authority seem to have for anarchists. Then again, an anarchist did assassinate the actual president of the nation (William McKinley, 1901), so there’s a precedent for this fear. But the reality is that anarchy may be our best hope for moving forward in a new century riven by class warfare, massive economic disparity, untrustworthy governments, and social malaise.
I’m not talking about anarchy based on a philosophy of violence, but anarchy based on a philosophy of community. This isn’t the glamorous kind of youth-revolt-anarchy, but the slow-burning anarchy that fueled the Occupy movement. It’s the idea that ordinary people can run their own lives, and that rather than paying homage to an unfair pyramid of social class, we can instead organize to effect change while still remaining equals. This kind of anarchy favors horizontal organizing, where groups and committees decide on ways to move forward, and the goal is for all voices to be heard. Really, it’s about adults actually acting like adults and taking their futures into their own hands. We see it absolutely everywhere around us, but we don’t know what to call it. As more and more people awake to the harsh reality of our modern world, it becomes more and more important to find ways to rethink the old paradigms.
Enter Blackbird Raum. A tight coalition of young, black-clad, patch-wearing anarchist folk musicians from Santa Cruz, they’ve become the leaders of next generation folk and punk anarchist musicians. They belong to a generation torn between a digital life overseen and controlled by massive corporations and a remarkably vibrant unplugged life on the streets among handmade communities. Their last album, False Weavers, is a dizzying mashup of punk speed-folk and old-time stringband influences, with lyrics that reference everything from the French resistance and Penny Rimbaud, to Chief Joseph and Edward Abbey.
We caught up with Blackbird Raum online–well, the three main voices for Raum: singer and banjo slinger CASPIAN, singer and accordionist ZACK, and singer and mandolinist MARS to find out more about where they came from and what it means to bring anarchist ideals to folk/traditionalist roots.
Hearth Music: Tell me how the band was formed. What was the impetus to start playing folk music?
CASPIAN (CPN): We were living in these crappy shacks in the woods, no electricity. Even when we’d be staying at a house it wasn’t like we could have drums there. There are really stringent noise laws in Santa Cruz so having an acoustic band seemed really like the only option. Someone gave me a banjo so I played it and of course some folk arbiter came along and said “you’re doing it all wrong!” which I’m sad to say I believed for a bit. Somewhere along the line we started going to contra dances and oldtime jams. We met older people and started learning about this huge wealth of music, but we never stopped doing our thing, we never joined up with someone elses group. We just take in what’s going on around us, steal the parts we like and make our own thing.
MARS : In a way, we sort of played what was lying around. I remember sitting around this squat called “the kitchen” playing acoustic guitars with Caspian, because thats what was there… I think if we had a bunch of money and resources, we could have been super calculated about what we were doing. But we were taking what we had, and creating a vision out of that.
ZACK : I got an accordion, for some reason, and I was travelling around the country by freight train—with no case for the accordion!—and occasionally busking for enough money to get into the Chinese buffet. I didn’t know anybody who really played accordion and I had no clue what I was doing, but since I didn’t know any songs and pretty much had never listened to accordion music, I just made it up… I literally had zero interest in or knowledge of folk music at this point, a phenomenon that continued for a few years into the formation of the band. At the time I was listening strictly to heavy metal with some forays into fantasy-based power metal like Rhapsody and Dragonforce.
Did you guys have earlier roots in folk or black metal?
CPN: When I was in high school the token metal dude would play me different famous bands on his Walkman and I would frown. Then one day he played Ulver for me and I didn’t give him his thing back until school was out. In the space of one year they had recorded what I think is one of the best black metal albums, and then one of the best neo-folk records. Kveldssanger was the first album of contemporary folk music that I owned.
Some of us had a black metal band a few years back called Skraeling. We would put on these shows in the woods inspired by our friends in the Northwest who were at forefront of the whole Cascadian Black Metal thing. There were all these amazing bands up there that never really got it together to get a great recording, or do any kind of promotion for their music, but they were presenting things in this purposefully ritual way that had included a very up-front critique of the modern world and the destruction of nature. We saw Fauna a few times play in the woods before we put on a show for them in the state park in Santa Cruz. Threnos and Iskra were some other early bands playing black metal with punk politics and values.
ZACK : We would do these renegade shows on state park land, with a generator and the kind of map-point method of publicizing the location that was reminiscent of the 90s rave scene…
Why does the group call Santa Cruz home? What is it about the area that keeps you there?
MARS : I’m from New York originally and I stumbled upon Santa Cruz when I was 17 and traveling around. What kept me there originally was the community of people I met, and the forest they introduced me to. I fell completely in love with the chaparral and the redwoods. The forest helped me grow in so many ways. This town is expensive as hell to live in, and now that I no longer squat, those two things are still what keeps me here, though the context has changed. I have a daughter now, and that community has grown into an extended family for us. And the very forest that we lived in, and that taught me what it means to be alive, is being threatened by development right now. I feel deeply compelled to be here to protect and defend that place.
Is there a larger “folk-punk” movement that you all are part of?
CPN : Ever since there has been punk there has been folk-punk. Patrik Fitzgerald’s first album was in 1977. Chumbawamba and The Pogues were some early greats. There are so many different scenes and subgenres of punk, and pretty much any band that includes acoustic stuff is labelled a folk punk band.. I’m not even sure it’s a real genre of music, or at least it wasn’t until recently. We’re happy when one of our friends starts a new acoustic band so we have someone else we’re really excited to play with, but these bands are often more united by a shared community than any particular sound.
Why do you think punk and folk have always been so closely tied? What is it that links the two?
MARS : Its the people’s music! You don’t gotta be rich or go to school or read music to learn them. Both are best learned by just being around it. Both are as much about the culture they come from as they are about the music itself. Both seem simple at a quick listen, but if you listen closely, there’s so much room for nuance and subtlety. I feel similarly about Hip-Hop.
ZACK : I wouldn’t say that they have always been closely tied, and even with our band, a common complaint is that we sound too punk or too folk. Sonically, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, so if there is a link, it must have to do with accessibility. Most songs, punk or folk, have three or four chords and a similar, easy to comprehend, song structure; anybody who can play folk music can play punk music and vice versa. Both folk and punk had a political awareness stage, the former in the 60s and the latter in the 80s.
Tell me about anarchist roots of the band.
CPN- I don’t propose some program by which people will be led to a utopia of lentil soup and orgies. I have seen places like the native community in Black Mesa, or the squatting community in Hamburg, where people organize together to meet their own needs. They manage to respect each other and the earth, and solve their own problems because they have fought for the space to do so. I have also seen ancient forests destroyed to make Victoria’s Secret catalogs. I have seen hundreds of miles of hideous strip malls staffed by unsmiling people with no access to health care. I’ve seen cops beat people for no reason. Asking myself which side I’m on isn’t something I have to think very hard about. Our music is heavily informed by this vision of the world, but we try not to write propaganda songs, or songs for some particular political cult or social identity. If our audience wants to learn they will do better to read a book, and since I’m a book nerd, I’ve conveniently recommended some in the liner notes [of False Weavers]. We personally are anarchists, but our music isn’t about answering questions so much as asking them.
What is the anarchist movement like today? It seems there’s unprecedented governmental interference, FBI moles, brutality from cops, and a general view from many in the public of anarchists as a bunch of hooligans. In the time you’ve been playing music, do you feel like the anarchist movement has become more paranoid and repressed? Do you think there’s a new Red Scare coming for anarchists?
CPN-In the last two years of heavy traveling we have hung out with French union leaders, radical prostitutes, Swiss anarcho-punks in their 50s. We have stayed with squatters of the dirty and clean types and working people who spend their days hanging drywall and their nights fighting neo-nazis. We have talked with vegans and hunters, hippies and hard criminals. Anarchism is a feeling about life as much as it is some particular ideology…we are all waiting for the world of power politics to go away and I think we will wait a long time.
To be more specific to your question, most anarchists don’t engage in black bloc activities, or even spend much time thinking about them. Generally the stuff we do doesn’t make very good news copy. I can imagine the headlines “Anarchists Wrote Another Book Today, Cogent Discussion Ensues” or “Meeting of The Babysitting Collective Passed Without Incident” don’t sell as well as riot porn. Recently Brazilian Black Blocs have been called in by the teachers union to help protect their strike against police brutality. It’s a case of anarchists going to where there is conflict between people and power and using their willingness and preparation to act in the interests of the poor. That’s really different from showing up at some peace rally and smashing up a bunch of random businesses because you think that’s what radicals are supposed to do. I enjoy rioting, looting and all that…but I think that unless it’s going to be really well thought out I’d rather not present it to other people as some grand political gesture. I guess that’s what Raiders games are for. When I want to make myself feel good about calling myself an anarchist though, I don’t think about the black bloc or opaque French texts, I think about my heroes like Alan Moore, Emma Goldman and Kenneth Rexroth.
MARS : Because anarchists value individuality and horizontalism there isn’t one central platform or position that defines “the anarchist movement”. That is also what keeps anarchism fluid, adjusting to new realities as conditions change. For me, the word anarchism is an impoverished description of my simultaneously simple and nuanced values. I deeply desire autonomy, freedom, and communities where everyones needs are valued. But really it’s a deep trust, a trust that I can figure out what is best for my life, even if I mess up along the way. A trust that a community can figure out together how to meet their own needs, and a trust that even though we don’t have all the answers, we can probably think of something healthier than the current set up.
As for state repression, its not new. It’s important to learn from history. The Government certainly does. Tactics for repression on this continent have been being refined since Columbus set down his first foot. The then illegal actions taken by the FBI during COINTELPRO were refined and made legal under the PATRIOT Act. This means heightened repression and oppression for everyone, not just Anarchists. Its no secret that this has drastically affected Muslims and undocumented immigrants.
CPN : There already was a new red scare, called the green scare (though to be fair, the actual red scare was waaay worse), that decimated the anarchist and radical environmental movement in the early 2000s, so much so that the militant environmental movement in this country has gone, in ten years, from something that was a beginning to be a real threat to destructive industry to something that is almost non-existent. There’s an excellent book on the subject called “Green is the New Red” by Will Potter, and I encourage everyone who thinks that there are no political prisoners in this country to read about the Marie Mason case. The tactics the government uses to diffuse social movements are extremely diverse, ranging from sentences for vandalism that are longer than some people in this country receive for voluntary manslaughter, to police infiltration tactics that make you question whether or not your friends are paid informants.
In the Northwest (and the West coast in general) in the early 2000s you had this massive scene of people interested in anarchist and ecological resistance. Everyone I met was treesitting, starting an infoshop, something like that. They chased the cops out of the Whiteaker district in Eugene, the WTO protest had just happened. The winning momentum was catching. In a way it was really inspiring…
In a few years it was all over, people you knew were doing these massive sentences, rumour mongering and divisive people (some in the pay of the FBI) were able to shut down communication and debate about key issues. In a short while you went from this vibrant scene to these people sitting around in bars bawling about the good old days. People got scared, I mean it’s really awful to slowly realize that one of your friends is a mole, or to be socially ostracized on the basis of some weird rumour. Spirituality tends to follow repression in resistance movements. After the Red scare a lot of people on the left turned to Willhelm Reich. After the 60s went kaput everyone started getting gurus. Post the green scare people turned to black metal eco-nihilism, paganism, or “rewilding” therapies.
Has Obama helped or harmed the situation? It seems there’s even less room for political dissent under his regime than with Bush, which seems kind of amazing
CPN : Obama might be a really good guy dedicated to making a difference, yet stuck in a cynical and unmovable system…or he might be an empty figurehead representing an abstract “hope” instead of any kind of tangible change in the conditions of our lives. To me this isn’t a very relevant distinction, as the results are more or less the same. Our political system is based around noisy arguments over important, but ultimately sideline civil liberties issues: e.g. contraception, or handguns. Meanwhile the Energy, Military and Medical industries quietly pillage the populous and cause irrevocable damage to the environment. Obama will never be able to offer us credible answers to global warming and the economic inequities of our society because to do so he would need the consensus of a system that is gridlocked by design, a system greatly benefiting the most powerful people in the world.
MARS : There was a lot of anger and disenfranchisement after two Bush terms. Instead of using this anger to take apart these broken systems and build something new that can better support our needs and desires, the System re-appropriated that anger by presenting a hopeful possibility for change. Should we be surprised that its only gotten worse? What I want is for folks to stop valuing voting and campaigning over building REAL power for ourselves and our communities.
Is Blackbird Raum a cop magnet? It seems you guys get busted or overwatched by the cops a lot more than should be the case.
CPN-We played in Seattle during Occupy and we could clearly make out figures with telephoto lenses in an abandoned office building across the street. I just walked out into the street, flipped them the bird and they scampered off into the darkness as if it was ME that was the shadowy government agent with near unlimited resources and minimal organizational transparency. I don’t want to whine about our experiences, as they aren’t really that bad. If you want to learn about state repression, ask Jeremy Hammond, who just received a ten year sentence for nonviolent computer crimes.
What are the folk roots of the album? What folk or roots music has been inspiring you recently? What do you take from old-time music especially that you put into Blackbird Raum’s music?
CPN : If you’re asking about people that have influenced my playing…on the banjo I’d say Tom Riccio of the Red Hots, as I learned banjo before I got too snobby to learn from recordings of modern players. Marcus Martin is one of the best fiddlers of all time, I can’t really do it, but I learned a lot of John Salyer and Ernie Carpenter tunes with all the bow licks that I could figure out. I more or less try to use the most archaic techniques I possibly can… As far as more contemporary folk influences I’d say we really like a lot of 70’s stuff like Steeleye Span, or Planxty. The Andy Irvine/Paul Brady album is easily one of my favorite records. I saw Dick Gaughan when I was in Dublin and he still kills it. The song “Beast of Carthage” is my weak-ass attempt at a Michael Hurley impression. Martin Hayes, Buffy Sainte Marie…
Do you guys have ties to crust punk? I know that “crusty” is a label thrown around a lot for folk punk groups, but what are the real ties there? And maybe you could break down just what a “crusty” is, since I know many people aren’t familiar with crust punk music or culture.
CPN : Crust is a subgenre of punk music that came out in the mid 80’s English squatter scene with bands like Amebix and Discharge. It was really bleak music and everybody dressed like Mad Max with patches. It was kind of an evolution of the whole CRASS anarcho-punk thing, except these people weren’t arty, they were frightening.
I remember the first time I met crusties that played folk music it blew my mind, they seemed so talented, and they could go wherever they wanted and busk for their living. It’s really grown in the last few years…There are gypsy jazz bands, appalachian music, a lot of jug bands, punk/folk crossover bands like us. It’s all connected to New Orleans, trainhopping, the crusty thing. So many of these people are great musicians and very sweet, but there’s also a lot of really drunk, entitled people that carry around broken banjos, accost passersby and generally blow up the scene. It’s probably like when hippie went from meaning you were friends with Abbie Hoffman to meaning that you were zonked out wandering around the Haight wearing a carpet for a shirt. The interactionsbetween the “crust generation” of folk musicians and the people in the trad music scene can be really amusing and sometimes these older musicians come up to me and want me to explain what face tattoos or dumpster diving is about.
ZACK : crust is the best way to stay punk as you age.
What were your earliest folk influences? What was the music that kicked you over from what you were doing towards your current obsession with roots and traditional music?
MARS : My dad introduced me to Woody Guthrie. I just loved the simplicity. There was so much said in the space. But my real folk influences came when I dropped out of high school and started hitchhiking and riding freight around the country. I was just around it. Those were the instruments people had. It made sense to play folk music.
CPN : I listened to a ton of country blues growing up, all those big names like Robert Johnson or John Hurt. When I started playing in a jug band we would do Holy Modal Rounders and Gus Cannon tunes but I was playing some of that stuff for years before I ever heard the original versions. I didn’t have a computer or iPod, this is before all that crap was on YouTube anyways. I had a tape player, and then somebody gave me a copy of Ernie Carpenter’s “Elk River Blues” and it was all over. I listened to that tape literally hundreds of times.
MARS : I really like the tradition of learning by ear. I like how you can meet someone and exchange a tune. Somehow those experiences are so powerful to me. The chance to give and receive those gifts. I appreciate too the story telling aspect of traditional music. While our lyrics are often vague, we’ve also used them to tell stories, like about Ned Kelly, or the Lucasville prison uprising.
CPN : When old time music became bluegrass, it went from being something that white, black and native people all over north america played, to being the sole province of southern white people (the industry did the same thing to the blues in reverse). Bawdy or rebellious lyrics, and the ancient and strange manner of playing the fiddle went the way of the dodo, and suddenly you were supposed to wear a suit and do some “picking and grinning”. These sanitized and stereotyped images of American life are still being sold back to us as “Americana”. We purposely avoid this label, while trying to incorporate aspects of the old music into what we’re doing.
I don’t want to hear music that makes me feel like I’m in a church or a starbucks. I want to hear music that makes me feel like I am in hell, or purgatory, or alone on a mountain.
This article first appeared in KITHFOLK, the new quarterly digital roots music magazine from Hearth Music. Check out Issue #1, Winter 2014 HERE. Issue highlights include exclusive interviews with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Smithsonian Folkways artist Elizabeth Mitchell, New Orleans roots activists Rising Appalachia and anarcho-folk legends Blackbird Raum. Lots of album reviews and streamable audio. Beautiful original graphic design throughout.