Woody Guthrie famously had a sign on his guitar reading “This Machine Kills Fascists.” The slogan neatly sums up the philosophy of the ’30’s and ’40’s American left when it comes to the relationship between folk art and progressive politics. Leaving aside, just for the moment, the support that Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others in the folk left gave, at the behest of the American Communist Party, to the mass-murdering Stalin (and thus by extension, during the Hitler-Stalin pact, to Hitler too), their idea was that the anonymously composed, anti-commercial music of the people had the power to shake the foundations of capitalist and totalitarian hegemony.
With the labor protests in Wisconsin, I’m getting whiffs of nostalgia out there online for the agit-prop, pro-union, topical singing and songwriting of people like Guthrie, Seeger, the Almanac Singers, etc. There are some big issues here. To me, Guthrie was a kind of highly problematic genius; I love many things about his music — I got into some of the key questions in the Times a few years back. To read more about my dim view of Seeger’s music, and about how liberaloid culture has falsified history to construct Seeger as an icon, you can check out my essay on the legacies of Seeger and William F. Buckley, Jr., at Boston Review.
But anyway, regardless of how anyone feels about any of the old-left folkies’ music, Woody was just plain wrong about guitars and fascists.
Who has ever loved folk music more than fascists? Henry Ford was one such — and the same PBS-certified idea of culture that makes Seeger a saint always leaves out complications like Ford’s key contributions to folk revival in America. Radovan Karadzic has been my favorite example for years: that horrifying monster not only likes folk music, he plays it, on the traditional stringed instrument known as the gusle.
That’s not like Hitler enjoying puppy dogs, say. Kardazic’s immersion in traditional music isn’t a creepy irony. It’s part and parcel of his fascistic vision.
Which is what romantics don’t get about folk music and the oral tradition: they want it to be all about communality, sharing, and love. A real folk tradition can keep alive, generation after generation, often in secrecy, the deepest kind of violent hatreds. A roomful of people unified in song: sometimes it’s Seeger leading a bunch of nice people in L.L. Bean sweaters in “Guantanamera”; sometimes it’s a beer-hall putsch. The music doesn’t care. Anyone who wishes America’s folk had stayed more pure might want to consider that during shelling of Sarajevo, every Serb battalion had its own bard.
Rock on, Woody. But America’s best music, folk or commercial or both, has never been about union.