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. In place of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s phrase “move fast and break things” and contemporary Silicon Valley notions of necessary “disruption,” folk movement participants give us a different history in which technology and tradition were remixed into a politics that we might define as the antifascist imagination.

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 statistically correlated musical cultures around the world. As Lomax pursued his version of anthropological social science during the 1950s, the more eccentric artist Harry Smith turned his own idiosyncratic ideas about computation into the iconic Anthology of American Folk Music, a key source for the 1960s folk revival that sought to compile an information system of folk music from old “hillbilly” and “race” records in order to transform understandings of race in the United States.

Lomax had been profoundly influenced 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. The use of film remains an understudied aspect of her rich career as a modernist folklorist and artist. Even earlier than Hurston, another female ethnographer, Frances Densmore, recorded Native Americans using wax cylinders; completed at the turn of the twentieth century, her work serves as a kind of ground zero for all the problems and possibilities of subsequent field recording in the United States as a collision of well-intentioned democratic activism and sonic settler colonialism.

Despite the turn to audio recording equipment, Densmore’s generation of folksong collectors continued to focus on the printed book as a crucial technology. 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” with a book binding. 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 into digital code.

Ongoing issues of the aural transcription and written notation within the folk music movement can be understood more clearly when examined through the lens of technology. The recording engineer Emory Cook is most famous for his calypso recordings, but his work as an audio engineer and inventor connect to his interest in vernacular musical forms. 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.

These figures were squarely in what most think of as the folk music movement, and their underexamined uses of technology to shape the very meaning of folk music is crucial to the histories of modernism, vernacular culture, and popular culture in the United States. Others who are not typically associated with folk music are important too. Looking past artificial genre categories provides additional perspectives on the intersections of technology and tradition in twentieth-century America and the world. Eccentric composer Harry Partch, for instance, built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system, challenging musical and cultural boundaries between high and low art. During the same decades, 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. What if we consider Sun Ra as a folk revivalist too when it comes to the intersection of technology and tradition?

These histories lead up to our own times, when 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 public, the intimate and the algorithmic, the handmade and the mass consumerist, through technological means. The ironies of technology and tradition thicken. Activities such as Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph Recording Booth and the 78 Project even find younger folk enthusiasts recording musicians using the outmoded 78 rpm disc, embracing antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage. What once was “disruptive” is now marked as traditional.

Overall, in place of contemporary rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” of all existing custom and practice, the history this book unearths 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. A recurring theme is the effort to integrate new technologies with past traditions in order to constitute an antifascist imagination through sonic means. Folk music movement participants wanted to use machines to fight fascism. They hoped to wield technological instruments of aurality to foster a more democratic culture.

Tentative table of contents

  1. Introduction: “This Machine Kills Fascists”—Woody Guthrie’s Acoustic Guitar
  2. Capturing Native Voices: Frances Densmore’s Cylinders
  3. Creating Ballad Information Systems: Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
  4. Filming the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Picture Camera
  5. Notating Non-Western Sounds: Charles Seeger’s Melograph
  6. Programming the Mind: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
  7. Computing Punchcards of Song: Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics
  8. Recording Sound Fidelity: Emory Cook in the Lab and in the Field
  9. Fiddling Around: Guthrie Meade’s Fiddle-Tune Digital Databases
  10. Tuning In to the In-Between: Harry Partch’s Homemade Microtonal Instrument System
  11. Reviving the Future: Sun Ra’s Myth Science and the Afrofuturist Folk Revival
  12. Conclusion: When Technologies Becomes Traditions–YouTube Folk and the Hipster Return of the 78 RPM

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 consists of a robustly searchable digital database, a curated website narrative history of the festival, an audio podcast series inspired by artifacts in the collection, a traveling exhibition featuring the remarkable photographs of the festival (many never before seen), and a richly illustrated 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. These include an exploration of machine-learning sound analysis software, an investigation of image glitching for historical inquiry and 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.