Baltimore-based Riot Folk roots of a national folk-music collective
The collective Ryan Harvey and Mark Gunnery founded in the '90s has has become a major presence in the international folk community
Published: August 31, 2011
“With folk music, I feel like I have a broader conception of it than lots of folks,” Mark Gunnery says in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests the pun was not intended. “I think hip-hop is folk music.”
In 2004, Pikesville native Gunnery and Towson native Ryan Harvey co-founded the Riot Folk collective, a web site (riotfolk.org) and loose network of eight musicians spread across the country, with Minnesotan Shannon Murray joining as the ninth in 2007. And over the past seven years, Riot Folk has grown out of its roots in the “punk folk” movement of the ’90s to become a major presence in the international folk community, aligning itself with other collectives as far away as Poland.
The two roommates, who live and record in a home studio on Greenmount Avenue, seem to reflect the yin and yang of Riot Folk, the appreciation for the genre’s traditions as well as a willingness to explore new territory. “I kind of came to folk music because I heard Phil Ochs, a political folk singer,” Harvey, 27, says in a phone interview a couple of days before embarking on a tour of Europe with his songbook of intensely topical protest songs. “And [I] thought, OK, that’s clearly something I can do.”
A few days later, Gunnery, 28, notes, “I come at it from a political standpoint too, kind of radical politics, but a little bit less of a tradition of, y’know, Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs, or somebody kind of bashing you over the head with a message. I like it to be a little bit more ambiguous.”
Gunnery does have pet causes he occasionally writes explicitly political music about, however, most notably in his recent venture into klezmer music. “I’m in a Jewish drag troupe called Yoni and Malco, where we rewrite Jewish [traditional] songs to be really critical of Israel,” he says.
When Riot Folk first formed, Gunnery says, “We had pretty lofty ideas about making a kind of radical political-musician collective that can be economically sustainable and able to raise money for social movement stuff. Earlier on we were a little bit more cohesive and having regular conference calls. And right now it’s mostly we share a web site and share contacts with each other and are a little bit less a cohesive thing, partly because we’re all doing our own things.”
Of course, collaborations between the members of Riot Folk might happen more often if they didn’t mostly live in different states, aside from Harvey and Gunnery, who recorded the album The Good Times and the Bad as a duo in 2008. But Gunnery recently started a band with Oregon-based collective member Brenna Sahatjian called Lightnin’ Seed, which, true to its name, writes songs exclusively about “herbs and storms.”
Between the “freak folk” movement and a general revival of rustic acoustic aesthetics, indie-rock has seen an influx of folk influence in recent years. Harvey, though he grew up as a punk rocker who found his way to Billy Bragg via Rancid, is cutting a fairly different path. “I’ve noticed the acoustic explosion in the last few years,” he says. “But I don’t really feel part of it at all—I feel like I’m doing an older traditional thing. I’m very much an outsider to the music scene in a very real way here in Baltimore.”
Harvey’s activist background and extreme-left political beliefs lend his songs a passion and urgency matched by his high, quavery voice and insistent guitar strumming. And writing lyrics in reaction to the news of the day has proven to be a fertile muse, as Harvey’s churned out 13 albums to date. “Five of my albums happened in one night with a pot of coffee,” he says of his more lo-fi releases, full of home-recorded solo performances captured in one take. Of course, topical art often comes with an expiration date, and Harvey often rushes to release songs while the lyrics are freshly relevant. But occasionally he has taken his time on more elaborate productions, particularly on 2010’s Blowback, which featured an array of guests, including the Nightwatchman, the political folk alias of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
The Riot Folk web site trumpets the collective as an “anti-profit” and “anti-copyright” organization, and has featured free downloads of its members’ albums since its inception in 2004, well before every struggling artist was happily giving away his or her music online. One of the site’s more unique touches, however, is readily available lyrics for many of the songs, and sometimes guitar chords as well. With recording technology minimizing the necessity of folk’s oral tradition to preserve songs, contemporary folk musicians don’t learn each other’s songs much anymore, concentrating on their own original material. But Harvey hopes his site’s lyric sheets can help change that a little bit. “I really love getting e-mails like, ‘Hey, I hope you don’t mind but I rewrote the lyrics to one of your songs,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Sweet, good job.’”
Although many of his projects are largely acoustic and recognizably folk music, Gunnery has recently been exploring his passion for hip-hop and electronic influences with the solo project Aryeh Gonif. The music may stick out a bit on the Riot Folk web site, but Gunnery clearly sees the continuity and shared spirit. On the song “Home,” which features a flow inspired by the Baltimore rap radio staple “Oh” by Bossman, Gunnery raps what may as well be a mission statement for his idea of the genre’s future: “I’m tryin’ to innovate, I ain’t sayin’ folk is dead/ But I’m-a play it on the drum machine instead.”
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