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Can Woody Guthrie's Machine Still Kill Fascists?

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 this week; instead, our most influential and most populist folk singer died in his fifties while a wide-eyed teenager named Robert Zimmerman looked on. Thanks to the centennial, much is being made of Guthrie's fine...

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 about now; instead, our most influential and most populist folk singer died in his fifties while a wide-eyed teenager named Robert Zimmerman looked on. Thanks to the centennial, much is being made of Guthrie’s fine tunes and massive impact on folk, rock, Americana, and country music—the glowing Pitchfork review alone should get a few thousand more kids to drop Guthrie’s name at basement shows across the country.

But less is being made of Guthrie’s other all-important cultural contribution: his fascist-killing machine. His songs, delivered from that infamous slogan-bearing guitar, tackled the plight of the downtrodden at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Songs about the Depression, about immigrants suffering, about bankers being dicks. His best known tune, after all, is a polemic against private land ownership—the original version of “This Land is Your Land” actually includes these verses:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
This land was made for you and me

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?

Now, that message is actually pretty anti-American; at least, it rails against the chest-thumping, stay-off-my-lawn, land-lording America as it’s currently conceived—it’s all about how private property sucks, and how everyone has an equal right to the land. So yeah, it’s not surprising that the song has been neutered and de-radicalized so school choirs can sing it alongside pap like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”

Guthrie’s grit still manages to cut through, but only for those willing to seek it out, to give the song a good long listen. It’s still pretty commonly sung at protests (though only like .002% of America actually protests) and was adopted most recently by Tom Morello and #Occupy’s Guitarmy.

And Guthrie’s famous slogan—’This Machine Kills Fascists,’ as seen on the stickers and scrawling he slapped on his guitar—still gets embraced, hacked, and emulated all over the place.

From juvenile punk songs (“this machine! this machine! this machine kills fucking fascists!”):

To crazy lo-fi hip hop (from a Busdriver EP called This Machine Kills Fashion Tips):

to Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers, who updated the slogan for nerds: ‘This Guitar pwns NOOBS’ is slathered across his acoustic:

Wikipedia has a list of other homages, including:

* As a tribute to both Guthrie and Seeger, Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk has written “This Machine Kills Thieves” on his banjo (which, in addition, is a reference to a 2005 incident wherein the band had all of their instruments stolen).
* Folk artist Donovan played a guitar with a sticker reading simply “This Machine Kills”.
* Fallout: New Vegas, a video game by Obsidian Entertainment, features a rifle named “This Machine”. On the side of the rifle is carved “Well This Machine Kills Commies”. Obsidian has confirmed it is a nod to Guthrie.
* New York Gypsy Punk band Gogol Bordello parodied the phrase on fan merchandise by depicting handlebar mustached lead singerEugene Hutz with the caption “This Mustache Kills Fascists” above him.
* Pete Seeger’s banjo reads “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”.
* Star Fucking Hipsters frontman Stza Crack, has a variation of this slogan on his current guitar that reads: “This Non Gender-Specific Machine Kills Fascists”
* Punk-folk musician Austin Lucas, has a variation of the slogan on his guitar which reads: “This machine kills zombies”
* Canadian band The Tragically Hip features the phrase on Rob Baker’s guitar in their 1998 video for “Bobcaygeon.”
* On the New Orleans-based TV series Treme, Harley (Steve Earle) plays a guitar with the message “This machine floats,” a reference to Hurricane Katrina.

Now, it’s a testament to Guthrie’s greatness and renown that his trademark slogan is still referenced in pop culture and beyond. But it’s also worth noting that most of the homages entirely miss the point of Guthrie’s cheeky but loaded message, that they all downplay the fight-the-power aphorism—it becomes a trifle, defanged and re-appropriated for our wider amusement. Just like “This Land is Your Land.”

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