This Machine Kills Fascists

technology & tradition in the us folk music revival, or, what the folk music revival can teach us about the digital age—book manuscript in progress.


Using new archival sources and digital tactics of analysis, This Machine Kills Fascists investigates how the US folk music revival of the long twentieth century was filled with a surprising and complex embrace of machines: audio recording devices, printed books imagined as information systems, film cameras, melographs, even computers. A wide range of participants—Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances Densmore, Juan B. Rael, Charles Seeger, Emory Cook, Bertrand Bronson, Dorothy Scarborough, Guthrie Meade, and even figures not typically included in the folk revival for superficial reasons of genre such as classical composer Harry Partch and jazz Afrofuturist Sun Ra—sought to use technology to recover and, indeed, reimagine musical and cultural heritage. They did so in fraught and imperfect ways that ultimately sought to harness technology to tradition in order to enhance democratic politics. They wanted machines to “kill fascism.” Or at least they hoped technology could provide alternatives to the conservative fetishization of the volk that surfaced in Nazism and other totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. In their varied work, these folk revival participants believed democratic change, and perhaps even radical transformation, could paradoxically come from technological approaches to continuity.

Most histories frame the American folk revival as a nostalgic, antimodernist movement that culminated in objections to Bob Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. This book corrects the distorted portrayal. I argue instead that the long-running and wide-ranging engagement with technology found in the folk revival adds new dimensions to the scholarship on modernism, which becomes less a dramatic break or rupture with the past than a reworking of the very notion of heritage itself. So too, the stories of the technological folk revival offer new angles on Leo Marx’s classic take on American pastoralism as the vision of a “machine in the garden,” suggesting instead a hope for a lurking garden in the machine (a machine that might kill fascists, as Woody Guthrie famously scrawled on his acoustic guitar). Finally, folk revival explorations of technology shed new light on contemporary digital culture by revealing a lost origin point for contemporary digitality. Behind the current ideologies of digital “disruption” in today’s Silicon Valley lies a deeper history of Americans using forms such as folk music not to erase earlier modes of living, but rather to try to balance progress with the past, technology with tradition.

Who is in the book?

At some point in 1941, as World War II intensified, Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. The folk singer and leftwing political activist’s humorous—yet also quite serious—slogan has become iconic. Guthrie, however, did not invent the phrase himself. Instead, he reputedly borrowed it from industrial union workers who were putting it on lathes they used to make materiel bound for the Allied fight in World War II Europe. Guthrie appropriated it to articulate his own version of a folk music politics. The sly humor of his playful yet serious sloganeering raised the question of whether an acoustic guitar was a machine. How might this instrument—and the traditional music and culture of heritage and roots it represented—relate to the modern world of technology and ocean-spanning warfare against totalitarianism?

Guthrie’s slogan forms part of a larger but lost history of how participants in the folk revival harnessed technology to examine tradition in service of a hoped-for democratic politics. In the early decades of the twentieth century, intense debates about how to capture oral folk cultures in print broke out. Literary scholar Bertrand Bronson’s studies of Francis James Child’s English and Scottish ballad collecting, Olive Dame Campbell’s journey to Appalachia alongside Cecil Sharp, Dorothy Scarborough’s approaches to songcatching, music critic Henry Edward Krehbiel’s interest in African-American folksongs, W.E.B. Du Bois’s use of what he called “sorrow songs,” Frances Densmore’s Native American Music Bulletins, and Carl Sandburg’s Songbag help us notice how the challenge of transforming orality into printed compendiums marked a shift to treating cultural heritage as information and data to organize, codify, and correlate.

Recording and transcription techniques offered new ways of imagining culture as data, heritage as information systems. 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. Zora Neale Hurston made pioneering use of yet another fairly new technology—the film camera—for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s and the use of film remains an understudied aspect of her rich career as a modernist folklorist and artist. Charles Seeger, father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right, spent decades tinkering with a “melograph” machine, a sort of seismograph that could electronically register and print to paper non-Western musical sounds without using Western classical notation. Less well-known audio engineers, ethnographers, and folklorists also remind us of the varied and often vexing tensions between the technological “capturing” of folk music and its capacities as data and information. Emory Cook, an audio engineer, moved between ideas for sound recording and his work with calypso music in the Caribbean. Juan B. Rael recorded music in the Hispanic communities of the Southwest Borderlands that tried to register syncretism in sound. Helen Hartness Flanders recorded New England music over a long career that shifted from white supremacist assumptions to a more diverse imagining of American cultural heritage.

By the decades after World War II, folklorists turned to the new technologies of computation to study folk music as well as to a computational imagining of cultural heritage. Alan Lomax moved from his post at the Library Of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song to begin a long process of developing a computer-based system for analyzing song styles. Eventually, this became his “cantometrics” project. By the early 1960s, Lomax was using punchcards and mainframe computers for cross-cultural, international musical and social comparisons. This culminated in his Association for Cultural Equity and multimedia Global Jukebox soundmap of statistically correlated musical cultures from around the world. The more eccentric artist Harry Smith turned his own idiosyncratic ideas about computation into the 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. Years later, his and Lomax’s work of “programming the mind” through music, as Smith called it, led to other computational folk projects such as Guthrie Meade’s fiddle-tune databases.

These figures were squarely within the folk music revival conventionally understood. Others who are not typically associated with folk music add new dimensions to the story. 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 Partch and Sun Ra as folk revivalists too when it comes to the intersection of technology and tradition? Focusing on technology allows us to move beyond superficial genre distinctions and hear deeper engagements with how to think about culture as data and link heritage to progress.

The histories of these varied figures, with all their flaws and breakthrough ideas, lead up to our own times. On YouTube and other forms of social media, instrument lessons and song exchanges have never been more vibrant as they use technology to criss-cross between the personal and the public, the intimate and the algorithmic, the handmade and the mass consumerist. Beyond the feeds and posts of the online world, the ironies of technology and tradition thicken in other ways too. Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph Recording Booth and the 78 Project find younger folk enthusiasts recording musicians using the outmoded 78 rpm disc with renewed enthusiasm. These younger folk revivalists now embrace once cutting edge, now-antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage. What once was technologically “disruptive” has now become the traditional itself.

Why does it matter?

In place of contemporary Silicon Valley rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” and the supposed need to, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it, “move fast and break things,” the history this book unearths suggests alternative configurations, both promising and problematic, of Americans seeking to slow down and preserve things. They wanted to find a balance between progress and the past. In particular, a recurring theme in the folk revival’s turn to technology is the effort to integrate them with older traditions in order to constitute an antifascist political imagination through sonic means. In America, there were folk music movement participants who wanted to use machines to fight fascism, broadly conceived. They began, somewhat paradoxically, to consider aurality as data and information to do so and they wielded technological instruments of print, transcription, and computation in hopes of transmuting intangible forms of heritage into forces for democratic culture.

Table of contents

  • Introduction: “This Machine Kills Fascists”
    • The Origins of the Technological Slogan on Woody Guthrie’s Acoustic Guitar
  • Chapter 1: Folksong Information Systems—Oral Culture and Print Technology
    • Bertrand Bronson’s Child Ballad Studies
    • Olive Dame Campbell’s Appalachian Journey
    • Dorothy Scarborough’s Songcatching
    • Henry Edward Krehbiel’s Afro-American Folksongs
    • W.E.B. Du Bois’s Sorrow Songs
    • Frances Densmore’s Native American Music Bulletins
    • Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
  • Chapter 2: Capturing the Folk—Recording and Transcription Techniques
    • Frances Densmore’s Wax Cylinders
    • Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Picture Camera
    • Charles Seeger’s Melograph Notation Machine
    • Juan B. Rael’s Borderlands Sounds
    • Helen Hartness Flanders’ New England Ghosts
    • Emory Cook’s Audio Engineering
  • Chapter 3: Programming the Mind—Folk Music and Computers
    • Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics
    • Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
    • Guthrie Meade’s Fiddle-Tune Databases
  • Chapter 4: Expanding the Field—Folk Music Tradition and Technology Beyond Genre
    • Harry Partch’s Homemade Microtonal Instrument System
    • Sun Ra’s Myth Science Afrofuturism
  • Conclusion: When Technologies Becomes Traditions
    • The Hipster Revival of the 78 RPM in the Age of Social Media