This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and Tradition in the US Folk Music Movement

By Michael J. Kramer


This book-in-progress investigates the relationship between technology and tradition in the US folk music movement. Typically assumed to be nostalgic, antimodern Luddites, many key folk movement participants were in fact quite interested in how technology could preserve cultural heritage and yield new understandings of it. To be sure, folk music participants did not solve the dilemmas of balancing technological progress with a sense of rootedness and stability, but their complex engagements with how new machinery and older musical traditions might go together offers a history to help us ground ourselves better in today’s wireless world.

Who is in the book?

Perhaps most famously—and contradictorily—Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists,” on his acoustic guitar during World War II, borrowing the slogan from industrial union workers to articulate his version of a folk music politics. His friend the folklorist Alan Lomax, meanwhile, developed a computer-based Cantometrics project in the late 1950s, using punchcards and mainframes for cross-cultural musical and social comparisons; this work culminated in Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity and his Global Jukebox digital soundmap of musical cultures around the world. Lomax had been influenced profoundly by fieldwork with Zora Neale Hurston, who herself made pioneering use of yet another fairly new technology—the film camera—for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s. Even earlier than Hurston, another female ethnographer, Frances Densmore, recorded indigenous musicians using wax cylinders; completed at the turn of the twentieth century, her work serving as a kind of ground zero for subsequent field recording in the United States. Nonetheless, the book remained a crucial technology during Densmore’s heyday and intense debates about how to create what amounted to printed information systems of oral ballad culture surfaced among collectors and scholars, including the poet Carl Sandburg, who imagined his own printed compendium of folk music as a “songbag.” Decades later, a less famous folk participant than Sandburg, the computer programmer Guthrie Meade, was among the first to create computer databases of folksongs, in this case variations on fiddle tunes, at once extending the ballad print tradition and transforming it. Another important folk participant who probed the possibilities of technology was Charles Seeger, father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right: he spent decades tinkering with a “melograph” machine, a sort of seismograph that could electronically register and print to paper musical sounds without using Western classical notation.

Why does it matter?

These figures were squarely in what we think of as the folk music movement. But others who are not typically associated with folk, but perhaps should be, provide additional perspectives on the intersections of technology and tradition in twentieth-century America and the world: eccentric composer Harry Partch built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system; and the bandleader Sun Ra arose within the jazz milieu to forge an Afrofuturist vision of music and culture, blending Egyptian and mystical folk resources from the past with futuristic space travel ideas, iconographies, and sounds. Today, a robust transmission of folk music culture occurs over platforms such as YouTube, which sustains instrument lessons and song exchanges in ways that criss-cross the personal and the technological. At the same time, activities such as the 78 Project find younger folk enthusiasts recording musicians using the outmoded 78 rpm disc, now embracing antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage!

Overall, in place of contemporary rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” of all existing custom and practice, this history suggests alternative configurations, both promising and problematic, of Americans seeking to bring together cutting-edge technologies with intangible cultural heritage in efforts to balance progress with the past.

Tentative table of contents

Introduction: “This Machine Kills Fascists”—Woody Guthrie’s Acoustic Guitar

  1. Capturing Native Voices: Frances Densmore’s Cylinders
  2. Creating Ballad Information Systems: Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
  3. Filming the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Picture Camera
  4. Programming the Mind: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
  5. Seismographing Non-Western Sounds: Charles Seeger’s Melograph
  6. Computing Punchcards of Song: Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics
  7. Fiddling Around: Guthrie Meade’s Fiddle-Tune Databases
  8. Tuning In to the In-Between: Harry Partch’s Homemade Microtonal Instrument System
  9. Reviving the Future: Sun Ra’s Myth Science and the Afrofuturist Folk Revival

Conclusion: When Technologies Becomes Tradition–Jack White’s 78s and the 78s Project

Related digital public history project

As a digital public history dimension of “This Machine Kills Fascists,” I am working with the Northwestern University Library to create a multimodal project around the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually on the flagship campus of the University of California from 1958 to 1970. Overshadowed by the Newport Folk Festival, Berkeley in fact partly inspired that event with the model of combining concerts with workshops. The 30,000-plus artifacts in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection will redefine the history of the US folk revival by shifting attention from the East to the West Coast during the post-World War II decades, just as California was emerging as a center of American and global history as a whole.

The Berkeley project will consist of a robustly searchable digital database, a curated website narrative history of the festival, an audio podcast series inspired by aspects of the archival collection, a traveling exhibition featuring the remarkable photographs of the Festival (many never before seen), and a richly illustrated coffeetable book that tells the history of the Festival and its significance.

Related technical digital humanities research

In addition to a book manuscript and digital public history project, this folk music research includes a set of technical, specialized digital humanities experiments related to the fields of cultural history, US history, American studies, music history, sound studies, data visualization, digital mapping, and multimedia narrative. These include an exploration of machine-learning sound analysis software, an investigation of image sonification for historical interpretation, and an interactive, data-rich experiment in speculative mapping with a digitized version of Humbead’s Revised Map of the World.

Earl Crabb & Rick Shubb, Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, 1968.