This Machine Kills Fascists

technology, folk music & cultural democracy in the usa. book in progress.


At some point in 1941, Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. Over time, the folk singer’s slogan has become iconic, but it turns out that Guthrie did not invent it himself. He seems to have adapted “This machine kills fascists” from industrial union workers in New York City. They were putting it on lathes they used to make materiel bound for the Allied fight against Hitler in Europe during World War II. What drew Guthrie to the phrase? And what inspired him to put it on his guitar?

Perhaps “This machine kills fascists” articulated Guthrie’s own developing understanding of how to connect musical heritage to the pressing problems of contemporary society. Despite caricatured portrayals, Guthrie was no nostalgic Luddite. As historian Will Kaufman has documented, Woody had the “modern world blues.” He was deeply curious about how to link folk music to the polyglot, democratic possibilities of the messy present. Unlike fascists, he did not hear the music as the sound of a racially purified ancestry. Nor did he think one could use folk to get back to some kind of idealized, pastoral past. Guthrie began, instead, to think of his acoustic guitar as a machine: a tool, like a lathe, or maybe even a weapon, like a bullet, bomb, or gun. With humor and verve as well as some serious effort, a wooden guitar could become loaded with the explosive possibilities of intangible cultural heritage. Summoning the past, it could be strummed, plucked, fingered, and picked to bang out a more liberating, democratic, egalitarian, humanistic future.

This book takes up Woody Guthrie’s phrase to explore, in myriad ways, the interactions of technology and folk music. How did they collide in relation to the problems of fascism and fascist tendencies? Could they be combined to foster a more democratic society? Guthrie’s slogan forms part of a larger history of how participants in the US American folk revival used technologies of various sorts to examine tradition in service of a hoped-for emancipatory cultural politics. They were far from perfect in their varied approaches, but along the way they confronted a question we still face when it comes to culture, heritage, and politics: how does one establish a productive, positive relationship between past and present?

Folk revivalists—from musicians themselves to collectors, recorders, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and even those not typically included in the so-called revival of folk music until one foregrounds technology— asked how should one organize oral cultures of balladry, who gets to do so, and by what criteria. They explored what it meant to “master” the playing of a musical instrument in a particular vernacular idiom. They tried to figure out what the proper ways might be to “capture” folk music through recording devices or notation machines. They wondered if one could use digital computers to process folk music and culture by quantitative means. They imagined folk “scenes” in a way that presaged the Internet and its “social networks,” sometimes in ways that directly influenced the rise of online culture. They wondered about questions of combating racism through sonic means, seeking to fight fascism in one of its most visceral forms. They confronted issues of gender and technology. They found the mix of machines and folk music leading them into complicated dynamics of class and region. And they used folk music to probe the relationship of humans to the natural world: ecology as mediated by integrations of new technologies into older forms of traditional sound-making.

Matters of technology and tradition have often lurked within studies of the US folk revival, but no one book has investigated them as its central point of inquiry. Exploring various manifestations of machines in the folk revival across the twentieth century and into the present, this study brings cultural and intellectual history together with the history of technology. It does so to trace the connections—the entwined wiring—between the past and the future, heritage and modernity, roots and routers, ancient practices and contemporary possibilities, old modes of surviving and new techniques of transforming. Whether it has been technologies of print, transcription, recording, instrument-making, networking, or computation, we repeatedly see the effort—fraught, often problematic, sometimes revelatory, always important to notice—of people seeking to fuse traditional music with machines in service of developing a modern democratic culture.

Table of contents

Introduction—This Machine Kills Fascists: Woody Guthrie’s Guitar
Chapter 1—Ballads, Sorrow Songs, and Songbags: Debates About Printing Oral Culture
Chapter 2—Dulcimers, Banjos, and Fodellas: Music Instruments as Vernacular Technology
Chapter 3—Melographs and Seven-Pointed Stars: The True Lover’s Knot of Transcribing Barbara Allen
Chapter 4—The Fidelity of Folk Music: Cook Laboratories
Chapter 5—The Global Jukebox and the Celestial Monochord: Folk Music, Cybernetics, and Systems Theory in the Cold War
Chapter 6—Humbead’s Revised Map of the World: Folk Scenes as Social Networks
Chapter 7—Rethinking the Revivalism in Afrofuturism: The Folkways of Sun Ra’s Spaceways
Chapter 8—Root Notes: The Avant-Garde Revivalism of Harry Partch’s Microtones
Chapter 9—Accordion and Voice: Deep Listening and Pauline Oliveros’ Electro-Acoustic Ecology
Epilogue—Unnatural Blues: Streaming Folktronics, the Return of the 78, and the Antifascist Echoes of Vera Hall