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.
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Guitars don’t kill fascists. People kill fascists.
Fascism is one of the words I simultaneously love and hate; the dichotomy arising from our chronic, national inability to use this word properly. I am sure you know its meaning, but for most readers the word is far too vague and completely loaded: I think now, it means something more like “bad guy” in most American circles. So naturally no one wants *that* word anywhere near *their* movement. Even wikipedia (which I take as gospel – an admission that would have you label me as a wicked populist, no doubt!) has a problem with the word, noting that there is “confusion over whether fascism is of the left or right”.
If there were such confusion, it’s simply a result of how definitions for “Left” and “Right,” or “Liberal” and “Conservative” differ between the US and Europe (or the World). Beyond, this trivial sort of confusion which would be fixed through a simple re-labelling of the words, there is no true underlying confusion, although there’s an attempt by many to promote confusion. We should all honestly admit that Fascism is the creation of (in US terms, now) the Left. It’s based on the fundamental idea that a large, centralized government will better manage every aspect of its citizens lives than they. So, there is more in common with Mr Guthrie and Fascists than he’d have you believe – as you rightly point out. (Although, you seem to suggest this is “problematic” for Guthrie, rather then the subsequent attempt to rewrite history by America’s Left and keep Guthrie’s role as folk hero intact.)
However, today, what truly confuses me is that no one in the media calls out the obvious similarity between the rhetoric, tactics and violence of those in Madison, WI, say, and the fascists (or communists for that matter) of the 20s! They are determined to preserve *that* word for Tea Partiers, a group that according to the DC Police, left the National Mall cleaner after their rallies than when they got there, which now that I think about it, might be Fascist in a Brave New World sense…but I digress.
The reason for this problematic confusion might simply be that the Age of Woody Guthrie is completely over and spent – he and his kind are in charge now, they are the insiders now. And what we see happening in Washington is the result of their benevelent, but nonetheless fascist, rule.
In the words of a greater man than myself:
Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. — C.S. Lewis
Let me clarify my above comment. The luxury of the protester is that he can be against something, pointing out all the ills of that something, without needing to be *for* something, without the need to present a single positive workable solution for those ills. Guthrie’s generation of protest singers and the entire subsequent 60s movement he inspired, could be against things like “fascism”, “corporatism” and . However, now that this generation has grown up (if you can call it that) and taken the reins of leadership in our society, I am utterly disappointed and stunned by the complete lack of imagination they have thus far displayed in tackling todays problems. Their great ideas are apparently simply relabeling of the classical leftist, democratic socialist philosophy! (Somehow, these so-called intellectuals have been able to ignored the last century’s ubiquitous attempts and complete failure to create even a sole workable example of the socialist democratic utopia anywhere in the World. But no matter – lets make one here any way.)
The point: while Mr. Guthrie and his companions distinguished themselves from the fascists they were fighting at the time, nearly a century later, its very difficult to see any crack of light between what they supported (their connections to communism, you point out) and the fascists they despised. For me, their similarities, like the complete disregard for individual freedoms in favor of collectivism) far outweigh any differences.
“It’s based on the fundamental idea that a large, centralized government will better manage every aspect of its citizens lives than they.” Obvious you don’t know what Fascism is, maybe you could examine the historical facts of the origins and later Italy under Mussolini. It has more to do the melding of business and the state, just like we are experiences what we are on our way to in todays US.
“Kardazic’s immersion in traditional music isn’t an irony but part and parcel of his fascistic vision.”
“A real folk tradition can keep alive, generation after generation, often in secrecy, the deepest kind of violent hatreds.”
Specious “logic” like this, seemingly to “prove” the stupidity of a left-wing love of folk music, is a rather flimsy foundation to base an article on – it gives the appearance of being ignorant of your subject. Guthrie would have been the last person to write “traditional songs kill fascists” on his guitar!
See, it’s like this… Plenty of slave-holders in the South enjoyed good ol’-timey folk music on their porches. Does that invalidate the entire category of “folk music” as a means of liberation? Considering that slaves on those plantation were singing folks songs telling of means of escape, we surely must conclude that there’s more than one kind of acoustic music. A point that’s so obvious it need hardly be stated – except the above article is blind to it. Or perhaps I should say “deaf to it.” Have you listened to any of Guthrie’s albums? How about any of Seeger’s albums? I’d recommend taking 90 minutes to do this before writing an article about them.
Guthrie’s machine killed fascists because:
A) Guthrie WROTE thousands of NEW songs with it, songs about contemporary events in his time. These songs had nothing whatsoever to do with fortifying any pre-existing “tradition” – especially not any kind of traditional complacency in the face of injustice. To say that the folk music played by Woody Guthrie has anything in common with the folk music Karadzic supposedly enjoys is as preposterous a statement as saying “any music in the world which happens to be produced by non-electric instruments is identical and interchangeable.” Two switch genres for a moment, it’s like saying a rock and roll song about raping women is interchangeable with a rock and roll song about fighting back against rape. Yes, both songs may be played on the same instruments… but the rock song against rape is not invalidated or socially ineffectual because of this fact.
Guthrie’s machine killed fascists because:
B) Guthrie PLAYED the songs he wrote on that machine for thousands and thousands of people across America. Hearing his songs inspired people to not just listen but act. People took courage from his songs, and acted by refusing to work for crappy wages, standing up for themselves in the face of abuse, learning how to work together to fight for their dignity – regardless of the color of their skin, the place of their birth, the correctness of their grammar, the amount of money in their pockets, the beauty of their faces or bodies. People heard the information in the songs Guthrie wrote, and they acted upon that information. It was organizers and writers and other such fighters who gave us some of the current rights we enjoy, such as the 8-hour work day and the voting rights of women.
It’s my understanding that when Guthrie inscribed his guitar with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists” he was doing this at a time when able-bodied men of his age were literally killing fascists overseas, first in the Spanish Civil War and then in World War 2. With the phrase written on his guitar, Guthrie was trying to justify to people that he was staying at home in America and fighting for people’s rights no less whole-heartedly and full-time than a soldier, but via ideas rather than with violence – the phrase was conceived somewhat as an excuse for his not being a literal killer of fascist humans at a time when other people were. However, Guthrie also did stints in both the Merchant Marine and the Army during WW2, nearly getting sunk by Nazi torpedoes while transporting supplies across the Atlantic, so he contributed to the cause of freedom and anti-fascism with his songwriting and in other ways as well.
Anybody upset about Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler might look to the similar level of non-aggression against Hitler that the USA was practicing at the same time. Both may have been bad, but the one-sided interpretation displayed in the article above does not show show a full understanding of that period and paints a distorted picture.
Under the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact (of August 23rd, 1939), the USSR did not engage in conflict with the Nazis – a neutral stance which lasted until June 1941. America, similarly, signed official Neutrality Acts in 1935-37 which also allowed the Nazis to expand without US intervention. The US didn’t even declare war on Germany until the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 – two months after the Soviet Union was already fighting Nazis. And of course the US wasn’t actually involved in a ground war against Germany until June of 1944, at which point Stalin and the USSR had been actively fighting the Nazis on the ground for a full three years.
Any inactivity in the face of the Nazis can be seen in retrospect as an inexcusable cop-out, but for any American to point a finger at the USSR for waiting too long to combat the Nazis is truly the pot calling the kettle black. The USSR was neutral against Hitler, and so was the USA; and the USA was neutral for longer.
PPS- Guthrie wrote “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” in 1941, and a lot more besides.
PPPS – And, while we’re on the topic, here’s some lyrics that Seeger wrote at the time:
“I never was one to try and shirk,
And let the other fellow do all the work,
So when the time comes, I’ll be on hand,
And make good use of these two hands.
Quit playing this banjo around with the boys,
And exchange it for something that makes more noise.
So Mr. President, we’ve got this one big job to do,
That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through,
Let no one else ever take his place,
To trample down the human race.
So what I want is you to give me a gun,
So we can hurry up and get the job done.”
(When you wrote in your article “who has ever loved folk music more than fascists?” you don’t say what “folk music” you mean. Presumably not this.)
After reading this, I listened to some Guthrie and Seeger albums for the first time. Sure wish I’d listened before I wrote about them! Turns out you’re right about everything. Thanks for setting me straight.
Seriously, should you have an interest in knowing where I come down on pretty much all the issues you raise here — and possibly becoming even further exasperated — see http://bostonreview.net/BR33.3/hogeland.php; https://williamhogeland.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/last-thoughts-on-woody-guthrie/; http://hogelandpublishing.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/coons-freaks-hillwilliams-200-years-of-roots-rock-revival-a-memoir/. Might be grist for the mill.
I’ll note here that when Seeger wrote the verses you quote admiringly — they’ve always sounded like self-regarding drivel to me — and when Guthrie was writing “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” (another song at least as lame, to me, as the jingoistic pop soon to flood the airwaves), it was in step with the 180-degree change in the Party line that came in response to Hitler’s violating the pact with Stalin and invading the USSR. That’s why Russians were fighting Nazis in 1941, and that’s why U.S. songwriters, working per instructions of “The Daily Worker,” stopped writing “peace” songs, harrying FDR as a warmonger for even considering war on Hitler, and began writing martial songs urging him and the American people to declare war on Hitler.
Nobody’s been complaining, here anyway, about the Soviets’ “waiting too long to combat the Nazis.” (Though they didn’t “wait” — and they weren’t “neutral” — they had a pact.) Not the kind of thing I write about. And the last thing I’m doing is using logic, specious or otherwise, to try to “prove” anything about the “stupidity of a left-wing love of folk music.” Lordy Mama.