“This Machine Kills Fascists”: Technology and Tradition in the US Folk Music Revival

By Michael J. Kramer

This book-in-progress investigates the relationship between technology and tradition in the US folk music revival. Typically understood as a Luddite movement, the folk revival in fact included diverse interests in how technology could preserve—and even advance—the making and understanding of intangible cultural heritage. Folk revivalists did not solve the dilemmas of technological progress, but they do present an untapped historical resource for how to ground ourselves in today’s increasingly wireless world.

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 developed a computer-based Cantometrics project in the late 1950s, using punchcards and mainframes for cross-cultural musical and social comparisons; it culminated in Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity and his Global Jukebox digital soundmap of musical cultures around the world. Lomax had been influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, who made pioneering use of film for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s, herself in response to the filmic work of her teacher, anthropologist Franz Boas. Frances Densmore recorded indigenous musicians using wax cylinders at the turn of the twentieth century, her work serving as a kind of ground zero for American field recording endeavors. A few decades later, Charles Seeger (father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right) developed a “melograph” machine for electronic notation of non-Western musics. Carl Sandburg, the poet, responded to debates about capturing oral ballad traditions in print by imagining the concept of the “songbag,” one of a number of visions of turning ballad traditions into living information systems. Decades later, a less famous folk participant, computer programmer Guthrie Meade, was among the first to create computer databases of folksongs, in this case variations on fiddle tunes.

Others who are not typically included in the folk revival, but perhaps could be, provide additional perspectives on the intersections of technology and tradition. Eccentric composer Harry Partch built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system. 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; other Afrofuturists followed, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament Funkadelic.

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 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.

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.

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, digitized version of Humbead’s Revised Map of the World.