An Anti-Folktale: Is a Movement of Post-Punk, Justice-Seeking, Jesus-Following Musicians on the Rise?

By Potter, John | Sojourners Magazine, August 2006 | Go to article overview

An Anti-Folktale: Is a Movement of Post-Punk, Justice-Seeking, Jesus-Following Musicians on the Rise?


Potter, John, Sojourners Magazine


One musician pounds a giant bass drum (retrieved from the dumpster) in syncopation, as two others stomp and clap with careful aggression. A deck of cards serves as another member's instrument, while others put down their horns to play socket wrenches. Listen closely and you'll hear the harmonious echo of a glockenspiel in the midst of the crescendo of sonic layers. Audience members in this Baltimore dub sway rhythmically or shake their heads vigorously. The band Anathallo--whose name comes from the Greek word for "rebirth"--has taken the stage, and for a moment everyone in the room is lost in the joy of creativity.

Known for their wildly enthusiastic performances, this seven-member group from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, recently unveiled its first full-length disc, Floating World, after several self-released EPs. It's the first to effectively convey the theatricality and emotion of the group's live shows, which at times are serenely orchestral and at others resemble a punk-rock marching band. Floating World is built around a Japanese folk tale, "Hanasakajijii," about a dog that is killed and rises from death. Thematically steeped in violence and light, greed and grace, the CD is fertile ground for meditation on practicing resurrection.

Anathallo is evidence of the latest incarnation of folk music what journalists and music promoters have referred to as the "new folk" or "anti-folk" music genre. Although acts such as Ani DiFranco, Iron & Wine, Half-handed Cloud, and Sufjan Stevens may not necessarily apply those labels to themselves, "anti-folk" artists are lyrically, aesthetically, and conceptually concerned with many of folk music's traditional traits: honesty, justice, the use of personal narratives, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. The genre has also been influenced by punk rock's anti-corporate sentiments, as well as in building a cooperative community of artists. This DIY (do-it-yourself) sensibility of both folk and punk has shaped a new artist collective that is creating its own networks, communities, and culture through self-promotion and distribution rather than relying on corporations.

Christian "anti-folk" artists are embracing these tenets, as well as a desire to understand and follow Jesus. Sufjan Stevens, perhaps the best known, recently released The Avalanche, a collection of outtakes and extras from last year's unconventional hit Illinois, on the Asthmatic Kitty label he helped found. These musicians create art together, operate their record labels as collectives, and emphasize the importance of community. They may lack support in the traditional Christian market, but this is definitely "faith-based" music--with a twist.

Half-handed Cloud, whose name comes from a 1 Kings 18 passage about Elijah's servant, is essentially a one-man band in the person of John Ringhofer. Often performing as a member of Stevens' backing band, Ringhofer composes theologically and musically complex songs in quick bursts (usually clocking in under two minutes) of sing-songy effervescence. His latest, Halos & Lassos, also on Asthmatic Kitty, is his fourth and most fully realized LP in a series of records based largely on stories from the Hebrew scriptures, delivered with playful straightforwardness. Ringhofer's onstage show is decidedly unpretentious, evidenced by his recent set at Iota Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, where he switched between guitar, banjo, omnichord, trombone, keyboards--and the occasional windup toy or puppet.

Although these artists acts are rising--both Anathallo and Half-handed Cloud are touring this summer in support of new records--the musicians themselves don't seem to be as interested in genres as they are in expanding community and exploring the common issues important to them through building relationships.

"For the most part, I'm not sure a lot of these artists would feel very comfortable" falling under the Christian banner, said Anathallo guitarist and percussionist Danny Bracken, "especially if they are solely defined by their religious beliefs, which [could be] spun into some sort of a selling point. …

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