This machine kills fascists. —Woody Guthrie
Woody had this phrase written on his guitar in one form or another, in big, bold, black ink. Inspired by Woody, Pete Seeger etched it onto his banjo head! Folk musicians of that era like Woody, Pete, Leadbelly, and the ones who directly descended from them like Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bobby Dylan, and many more had it tattooed on their hearts! They weren’t up there to have a “great gig,” they were there changing hearts and minds first; if folks were entertained, bonus!
Somewhere along the way, priorities changed. Wars end, generations age, those values stopped being the core of American folk music, and we started to sing about different kinds of themes. Love and loss, joy and sadness, romance, friendship, all the themes of life, not just about shouting down tyranny. Maybe it was around the time James Taylor went on Saturday Night Live, sat on a stool, and played “Shower the People” with a reel-to-reel playing pre-taped backing vocals. It’s not what Woody would have done, I suppose. Who knows? To this day, I always refuse a chair on stage! Full disclosure: I’m a sappy folk singer sometimes. I love James Taylor, David Wilcox, Harry Chapin, and the rest. But, to this day, If I’m playing solo, with Berkley Hart, with the Banned, acoustic or electric, I’m not gonna sit down. That takes the power and angst out of it for me. I’m still at 17-year-old punk on the inside.
I came up in the ’80s. I graduated in 1988. I guess it was in ’79 when I really started to discover music other than my parents Beatles, Seals & Croft, Neal Sedaka, and Stevie Wonder records. The older kids were listening to all sorts of great stuff. I was angry enough to lean into Punk. Early on it was the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned. I even loved the Residents and got pretty heavily into Goth stuff like Bauhaus, Psychic TV, and FEAR. I loved Sonic Youth and Patti Smith! I got to see some bands in the Orange County punk scene, like X, Black Flag, and Oingo Boingo! I was also into San Diego bands like Fluf, Manual Scan, Crash Worship, the Tell Tale Hearts, and the Beat Farmers! So much anger, angst, and beauty! It was so raw! One didn’t know what was going to happen at the shows! Venues like the Jackie Robinson YMCA, Wabash Hall, and back yards all over the city were magical punk rock castles of pure adrenaline! Sure, people took advantage of the atmosphere, and there was violence sometimes but usually it was a beautiful balance where everybody kind of took care of each other but also got a lot of aggression out in a healthy way. T.S.O.L. and Bad Brains, even the Dead Kennedys and the Adolescents later on. All of these bands had a theme! A theme I would feel in my soul but not know how to name until much later! “This machine kills fascists.”
The journey, for me, from punk rock kid to a folk musician dude really wasn’t a long or strange trip. When I heard Guthrie, Dylan, and Ochs, I felt the same familiar angst that was baked into me early on by the Ramones and Sex Pistols! There are pictures of Woody Guthrie that look like pictures of Sid Vicious! The music and attitude were pointed to the same place and came from the same place inside the artists. Those two guys made people angry and convicted them of their evil in the same exact ways! They were persecuted and hunted by the same kinds of hate.
I love that anger and that raw angst. It used to be more prevalent in folk music. Whatever Americana music has become, the anger and angst has been washed out a bit. I do long for it to come back, but I learned a really great lesson the other day From Joey “Fucking” Harris! (Beat Farmers, Joey & the Mentals, etc…) I was posting somewhere about the Woody Guthrie quote “this machine kills fascists” and I said hey Joey, you’ve got one of those machines don’t you? He said sure do, so do you! I said, maybe it’s time for us to get those things out and get busy! We were both pissed about some political nightmare. He replied, “That’s what we’ve been doing the whole time!” My mind exploded!
You see, a protest song doesn’t have to be about the government or the boss man or the union or laws or bigotry or hatred. A protest song is any song that convicts a fascist for their hatred and evil deep down in their heart. Any song that makes them realize that hatred is not the way. I think “Shower the People” by James Taylor is just as powerful a protest song as “1913 massacre” or the “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Woody and Bob. It’s the spirit, the power source. It’s the love, joy, and beauty that convicts the evil heart. It’s not about telling people they’re wrong, it’s about showing them what’s right.
So, this is a call to arms. Get out there and spread all the love you possibly can every day. There’s no time to waste. The fascists are all around us and they need someone to show them that it’s okay to be compassionate, it’s okay to have sympathy, it’s okay to have empathy, it’s okay to love, and it’s okay to be loved. Those are the themes of the songs we write. Those are the themes that will heal the human race and save us all. See you at the gigs.