The Powerful Messages That Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger Inscribed on Their Guitar & Banjo: “This Machine Kills Fascists” and “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender”

Pho­to by Al Aumuller, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Like anoth­er famous Okie from Musko­gee, Woody Guthrie came from a part of Okla­homa that the U.S. gov­ern­ment sold dur­ing the 1889 land rush away from the Qua­paw and Osage nations, as well as the Musco­gee, a peo­ple who had been forcibly relo­cat­ed from the South­east under Andrew Jackson’s Indi­an Removal Act. By the time of Guthrie’s birth in 1912 in Okfus­kee Coun­ty, next to Musko­gee, the region was in the hands of con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats like Guthrie’s father Charles, a landown­er and mem­ber of the revived KKK who par­tic­i­pat­ed in a bru­tal lynch­ing the year before Guthrie was born.

Guthrie was named after pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son, who was high­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to Jim Crow (but per­haps not, as has been alleged, an admir­er of the Klan). While he inher­it­ed many of his father’s atti­tudes, he recon­sid­ered them to such a degree lat­er in life that he wrote a song denounc­ing the noto­ri­ous­ly racist New York land­lord Fred Trump, father of the cur­rent pres­i­dent. “By the time he moved into his new apart­ment” in Brook­lyn in 1950, writes Will Kauf­man at The Guardian, Guthrie “had trav­eled a long road from the casu­al racism of his Okla­homa youth.”

Guthrie was deeply embed­ded in the for­ma­tive racial pol­i­tics of the coun­try. While some peo­ple may con­vince them­selves that a time in the U.S. past was “great”—unmarred by class con­flict and racist vio­lence and exploita­tion, secure in the hands of a benev­o­lent white major­i­ty, Guthrie’s life tells a much more com­plex sto­ry. Many Indige­nous peo­ple feel with good rea­son that Guthrie’s most famous song, “The Land is Your Land,” has con­tributed to nation­al­ist mythol­o­gy. Oth­ers have viewed the song as a Marx­ist anthem. Like much else about Guthrie, and the coun­try, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Con­sid­ered by many, Stephen Petrus writes, “to be the alter­na­tive nation­al anthem,” the song “to many peo­ple… rep­re­sents America’s best pro­gres­sive and demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tions.” Guthrie turned the song into a hymn for the strug­gle against fas­cism and for the nascent Civ­il Rights move­ment. Writ­ten in New York in 1940 and first record­ed for Moe Asch’s Folk­ways Records in 1944, “This Land is Your Land” evolved over time, drop­ping vers­es protest­ing pri­vate prop­er­ty and pover­ty after the war in favor of a far more patri­ot­ic tone. It was a long evo­lu­tion from embit­tered par­o­dy of “God Bless Amer­i­ca” to “This land was made for you and me.”

But whether social­ist or pop­ulist in nature, Guthrie’s patri­o­tism was always sub­ver­sive. “By 1940,” writes John Pietaro, he had “joined forces with Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers,” who “as a group, joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Woody’s gui­tar had, by then, been adorned with the hand-paint­ed epi­taph, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” (Guthrie had at least two gui­tars with the slo­gan scrawled on them, one on a stick­er and one with ragged hand-let­ter­ing.) The phrase, claims music crit­ic Jon­ny White­side, was orig­i­nal­ly “a morale-boost­ing WWII gov­ern­ment slo­gan print­ed on stick­ers that were hand­ed out to defense plant work­ers.” Guthrie reclaimed the pro­pa­gan­da for folk music’s role in the cul­ture. As Pietaro tells it:

In this time he also found­ed an inter-racial quar­tet with Lead­bel­ly, Son­ny Ter­ry and Cis­co Hous­ton, a ver­i­ta­ble super-group he named the Head­line Singers. This group, sad­ly, nev­er record­ed. The mate­r­i­al must have stood as the height of protest song—he’d named it in oppo­si­tion to a pro­duc­er who advised Woody to “stop try­ing to sing the head­lines.” Woody told us that all you can write is what you see.

You can hear The Head­line Singers above, minus Lead Bel­ly and fea­tur­ing Pete Seeger, in the ear­ly 1940’s radio broad­cast of “All You Fas­cists Bound to Lose.” “I’m gonna tell you fas­cists,” sings Woody, “you may be sur­prised, peo­ple in this world are get­ting orga­nized.” Upon join­ing the Mer­chant Marines, Guthrie fought against seg­re­ga­tion in the mil­i­tary. After the war, he “stood shoul­der to shoul­der with Paul Robe­son, Howard Fast, and Pete Seeger” against vio­lent racist mobs in Peek­skill, New York. Both of Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist gui­tars have seem­ing­ly dis­ap­peared. As Robert San­tel­li writes, “Guthrie didn’t care for his instru­ments with much love.” But dur­ing the decade of the 1940’s he was nev­er seen with­out the slo­gan on his pri­ma­ry instru­ment.

“This Machine Kills Fas­cists” has since, writes Moth­er­board, become Guthrie’s “trade­mark slo­gan… still ref­er­enced in pop cul­ture and beyond” and pro­vid­ing an impor­tant point of ref­er­ence for the anti-fas­cist punk move­ment. You can see anoth­er of Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist slo­gans above, which he scrawled on a col­lec­tion of his sheet music: “Fas­cism fought indoors and out, good & bad weath­er.” Guthrie’s long-lived broth­er-in-arms Pete Seeger, car­ried on in the tra­di­tion of anti-fas­cism and anti-racism after Woody suc­cumbed in the last two decades of his life to Huntington’s dis­ease. Like Guthrie, Seeger paint­ed a slo­gan around the rim of his instru­ment of choice, the ban­jo, a mes­sage both play­ful and mil­i­tant: “This machine sur­rounds hate and forces it to sur­ren­der.”

Pho­to by “Jim, the Pho­tog­ra­ph­er

Seeger car­ried the mes­sage from his days play­ing and singing with Guthrie, to his Civ­il Rights and anti-war orga­niz­ing and protest in the 50s and 60s, and all the way into the 21st cen­tu­ry at Occu­py Wall Street in Man­hat­tan in 2011. At the 2009 inau­gu­ra­tion of Barack Oba­ma, Seeger sang “This Land is Your Land” onstage with Bruce Spring­steen and his son, Tao-Rodriquez Singer. In rehearsals, he insist­ed on singing the two vers­es Guthrie had omit­ted from the song after the war. “So it was,” writes John Nichols at The Nation, “that the new­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States began his inau­gur­al cel­e­bra­tion by singing and clap­ping along with an old lefty who remem­bered the Depres­sion-era ref­er­ences of a song that took a class-con­scious swipe at those whose ‘Pri­vate Prop­er­ty’ signs turned away union orga­niz­ers, hobos and ban­jo pick­ers.”

Both Guthrie and Seeger drew direct con­nec­tions between the fas­cism and racism they fought and cap­i­tal­is­m’s out­sized, destruc­tive obses­sion with land and mon­ey. They felt so strong­ly about the bat­tle that they wore their mes­sages fig­u­ra­tive­ly on their sleeves and lit­er­al­ly on their instru­ments. Pete Seeger’s famous ban­jo has out­lived its own­er, and the col­or­ful leg­end around it has been mass-pro­duced by Deer­ing Ban­jos. Where Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist gui­tars went off to is any­one’s guess, but if one of them were ever dis­cov­ered, Robert San­tel­li writes, “it sure­ly would become one of Amer­i­ca’s most val­ued folk instru­ments.” Or one of its most val­ued instru­ments in gen­er­al.

Pho­to by “Jim, the Pho­tog­ra­ph­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Woody Guthrie at 100: Cel­e­brate His Amaz­ing Life with a BBC Film

Hear Two Leg­ends, Lead Bel­ly & Woody Guthrie, Per­form­ing on the Same Radio Show (1940)

Pete Seeger Dies at 94: Remem­ber the Amer­i­can Folk Leg­end with a Price­less Film from 1947

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Tony says:

    I’m sure, if he were here today, he would add “and the Antifa”.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Yes, I’m sure an anti-fas­cist who wrote “Fas­cism fought, indoors and out,” would oppose anti-fas­cists who fight fas­cism indoors and out. That’s com­plete­ly log­i­cal.

  • eric says:

    I’ve stud­ied Woody and in my opin­ion he’d have noth­ing to do with either of these fringe groups.

    • Josh Jones says:

      If you haven’t already, I would encour­age you to read Will Kauf­man’s biog­ra­phy or Scott Borchert’s arti­cle at Month­ly Review. Guthrie was a rad­i­cal social­ist who worked with the Com­mu­nist par­ty and oth­er “fringe groups” and wrote for Com­mu­nist pub­li­ca­tions. I don’t claim to know what he would have done in 2017, but it’s no great mys­tery what his pol­i­tics were dur­ing most of his life­time.

  • Kathy Shaidle says:

    Right. Gui­tars. Ban­jos. While mil­lions of Amer­i­can men killed actu­al fas­cists, with guns, in WW2. Typ­i­cal left­ist self-aggran­diz­ing b.s.

    And Seeger remained an unre­pen­tant Stal­in­ist for most of his life. Not that you’ll read these:

    “I first heard Pete Seeger per­form when I was five or six, when I was a red-dia­per baby and he was black­list­ed and drunk.” (…) “There is no such thing as an Amer­i­can “folk.” We are a peo­ple sum­moned to these shores by an idea, not com­mon ties of blood and cul­ture. There is folk music in Amer­i­ca where pock­ets of eth­nic­i­ty resist­ed assim­i­la­tion: African-Amer­i­can blues, for exam­ple, or the Eng­lish songs frozen in amber in white Appalachia. That is why the best Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music always came from black sources, per­formed either by black musi­cians or white emu­la­tors from George Gersh­win on down.

    “Seeger’s (and Guthrie’s) notion of folk music had less to do with actu­al Amer­i­can sources than with a Com­mu­nist-inspired Yan­kee ver­sion of Pro­letkult. The high­ly per­son­al­ized style of a Robert John­son and oth­er Delta blues­men did­n’t belong in the orga­niz­ing hand­book of the “folk” expo­nents who grew up in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty’s failed efforts to con­trol the trade union move­ment of the 1940s. The music of the Amer­i­can peo­ple grew out of their church­es. Their instru­ment was the piano, not the gui­tar, and their style was har­mo­nized singing of reli­gious texts rather than the nasal wail­ing that Guthrie made famous. Seeger, the son of an aca­d­e­m­ic musi­col­o­gist and a clas­si­cal vio­lin­ist, was no moun­tain prim­i­tive, but a slick com­mer­cial­iz­er of “folk” themes with a nasty polit­i­cal agen­da. His capac­i­ty to apol­o­gize for the bru­tal­i­ties of Com­mu­nist regimes — includ­ing their repres­sion of their own “folksingers” — remained undi­min­ished with age, as David Gra­ham report­ed in the Atlantic..”

    Wait: You guys real­ly think “Antifa” are anti-fas­cists just because it’s in their name? You’re talk­ing about the masked thugs who attack Amer­i­cans exer­cis­ing their rights to free speech, asso­ci­a­tion and peace­able assem­bly?

  • Barry says:

    “anti-fas­cists who fight fas­cism indoors and out. That’s com­plete­ly log­i­cal.” Fight­ing “fas­cism” (which also includes lib­er­als who dis­agree with them) by using fas­cist tac­tics. That’s com­plete­ly log­i­cal. ;)

  • eric says:

    Thanks. I read every word of MR’s arti­cle. The poor and work­ing poor and com­mon man was his pas­sion ear­ly on. I believe he would have done any­thing for these peo­ple. He’d go to rad­i­cal extremes for the poor. He was rad­i­cal. I don’t see how today’s fringe groups (the groups on my TV) rep­re­sent the poor. In my own per­son­al bias (and hope) — I believe that he’d see right through them.

  • Tom Forsythe says:

    “Woodrow Wil­son, who was high­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to Jim Crow (but per­haps not, as has been alleged, an admir­er of the Klan)”

    Woodrow Wil­son was a racist, who seg­re­gat­ed the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and showed the Klan-glo­ri­fy­ing movie Birth of a Nation at the White House. He played a sig­nif­i­cant part in the Klan’s resur­gence.

    Guthrie him­self was not fond of “negros,” although his posi­tion soft­ened in lat­er years. After being admon­ished by a black fan for using the “n‑word,” he tore all the pages out of his song­book that used that word. This was a noble trans­for­ma­tion, but does­n’t change the fact that the racist songs were there in the first place.

  • John says:

    No won­der the kids today just play video games and don’t use the inter­net. You old grumpy whiny mean peo­ple just fight all day.

  • David K says:

    The arti­cle says:
    “Where Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist gui­tars went off to is any­one’s guess, but if one of them were ever dis­cov­ered, Robert San­tel­li writes, “it sure­ly would become one of Amer­i­ca’s most val­ued folk instru­ments.” Or one of its most val­ued instru­ments in gen­er­al.”

    One of these gui­tars is in the Muse­um of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture in Seat­tle, found­ed and fund­ed by the late Paul Allen. It’s not print­ed on paper on the front of the gui­tar, as in the pho­to for this arti­cle. But scratched on the back, in small print but very clear­ly, is the inscrip­tion “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” It’s a thrill to see it. I don’t recall the type of gui­tar; it’s a small par­lor sized gui­tar; not a dread­nought. And next to it in the dis­play case is Jimi Hen­drix’s 1960s Mar­tin D‑45.

    Let’s give some grat­i­tude to Paul Allen, for mak­ing Guthrie’s instru­ment avail­able to us to see.… and to remind us of Guthrie’s strong mes­sages for us.

  • Rowland Whittet says:

    From each accord­ing to their abil­i­ties
    To each accord­ing to their needs.

    You can put a pen­cil behind your ear so peo­ple know your incli­na­tions

    Some­times its unload­ing the Lau­ra B to get the mail or pro­vide a sto­ry.

    Oth­er­times its play­ing a jig to get the sum­mer com­plaints
    to join in and unload the gro­ceries, lum­ber and con­crete block

  • andrew says:

    LMAO “ this machine kills fas­cists and also anti fas­cists”

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