I was brought up with a deep, possessive love for folk music. It was often flanked with a love of punk rock, dark industrial, and new wave – but it always came back to folk. The sounds of Bob Dylan are most prevalent in my ears as my father is truly one of the biggest Dylan fans I have ever known. I was raised on it. He gave me a deep love for his work which included understanding where his work came from. It meant knowing a variety of books. It meant a strong love of good wit. It meant knowing Woody Guthrie.
It helps that I am from Northern New Jersey, right on the other side of the county line from the hauntingly impressive stone behemoth, Greystone Psychiatric Hospital (RIP). Greystone was a gorgeous old Kirkbride hospital where Woody Guthrie was committed in 1956 after being picked up for vagrancy in nearby Morristown. At that time, he was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when in reality he had inherited Huntington’s Disease. It would take him from this world 11 years later, but he spent five years in Greystone. As much of a legend as Woody already was for having been a prolific folk singer and writer, he was a local one for us having spent time nearby. One of my most prized possessions is a hardcover book of musings and photographs about his time there, “Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty”.
Woody was a legendary man who yearned to understand what he wrote and write what he understood. He wrote about the struggles of ordinary Americans. From his true tales of dust bowl struggles to his very real letters about a terrible, racist landlord by the name of Trump, Guthrie’s words live on in an almost legendary level of parallel to things we are battling with today. He was a champion for the working class and famously wrote in favor of unions and against fascism. His very famous guitar emblazoned with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” conjures feelings of true solidarity in words that inspire as they tell the stories of families just trying to live as best they can all over this country. It should be no surprise that when a band was given the opportunity to put music to words of his that had never been sung before, it would be the Dropkick Murphys that took it on.
Few bands represent unions and blue collar the way Dropkick have always tried to. Proudly Boston and proudly working class, they have given us spirited live shows and songs with the best kind of sing-a-long, shoving comradery. Irish-infused punk rock that gives love to unions and military, telling great stories through song that conjure memories of younger days when we could be a bit stupid, drunk, and proud – and taking no shit whatsoever. During the COVID shutdowns, we enjoyed that we still got to experience their St Patrick’s Day shows via live stream. It was a bright spot in a dark time. Even for this Cornish/Scottish folk punk hippie girl who has never been to Massachusetts.
A few years ago, I got a job working in midtown Manhattan for the publishing company that protects the works of several folk legends, most notably Woody Guthrie. At the time, they were in a battle to protect the rights to This Land is Your Land and I was so inspired that anyone would put so much into the preservation of important music. I absolutely HAD to work there. I was just doing royalty processing which was blindingly boring data entry, but the names and songs I was entering all day were legendary and as such, gave me a weird sense of pride and joy. It rejuvenated a slumbering desire in me to delve deeper into the music that had fueled so much of me up to that point. I was already mildly obsessed with the work of Woody Guthrie. Now I was full blown invested in knowing and feeling as much as I could.
I was only at that job a few months as I struggled with my health and the long commute into the city from rural NJ every day (sometimes I miss sunrises on the bus – I do not miss being stuck on it for 7 hours in the snow), but I will forever see it as an honor that I got to work there and I am thankful for the spark it gave back to the folkie in me.
I have often been fascinated by the fact that one of the most well known songs from Dropkick Murphys, Shipping Up To Boston, was in fact the words of Woody Guthrie. It’s tidbit of information that I (annoyingly, I’m sure) like to whip out in conversation. It’s no mystery to anyone who knows me that I love Woody Guthrie. Recently, I saw video of Ken Casey ripping into a crowd about “stolen” elections and telling folks to stop believing the nonsense. The people fueling this are the wealthy who don’t care about you. There was much warmth in my heart seeing him going off on that tangent but it was also a knowing nod from me – you cannot devour the words and works of Woody Guthrie and be a part of the MAGA cultism. It’s two completely different planets. There was something very validating seeing him say those words with the frustration that he did.
When I heard they were putting out “This Machine Still Kills Fascists” with the original words of Woody Guthrie, I was so excited to hear what they would do with those words. I can only imagine the treasure trove of words that must exist and how many ideas are waiting for the right ear and heart. There was an early release of the track “Ten Times More” and it did not disappoint. With its stomping beats and rhythmic, chanting lyrics, it almost sounds like a call to action the way they put it together. Something to sing as you march to gather. That march that seems almost constant – for our rights, for our freedoms, for our lives moving forward. “Not once, not twice, but ten times more.” It’s incredibly relevant right now.
The track was an inspiring taste into what they did with the full project.
The album itself is short, coming in at 30 minutes and 23 seconds while still boasting 10 strumming, marching, gorgeously inspired tracks. “All You Fonies” is a favorite of mine. A wonderful chant of “All You Fonies Bound To Lose” will be a fantastic audience participation when Dropkick brings this around for us to enjoy live. The song is a fantastic rallying cry for those standing on the line fighting for fair wages and conditions, even as we sit in 2022 when this should have already been settled so long ago. It’s a truly amazing thing for Woody (I think) to have his words being used for the same purposes he wrote them. To educate, to excite, to help bring change. This song is so well done – see if you can sing along and not feel inspired.
“Dig A Hole” is a true and genuine treasure. It’s the recorded vocals of Woody Guthrie, brought forth from the archives where it was held carefully and with love, put to music by the gents in Dropkick, and matched with the vocals from Ken and the boys. Woody’s part had originally been recorded for Smithsonian Folkways but had never been released. The song was written about the realities of World War 2 and digging a hole to bury your deceased enemies – specifically, the fascists. The Nazis. It’s a powerful song. I am reminded of the footage I have seen of Ukraine soldiers. I have often wondered what Woody would think about what’s happening over there.
Another notably powerful song is the opening track, “Two 6’s Upside Down”. It tells a story of gambling, of living hard, shooting the man who stole and then left his girl, and going to jail. The main character was given “99 years” – two 6’s upside down. It’s got a fantastic chugging feel to the song as they tell the story and you can feel the sorrow and the frustration. It’s really well done.
The whole album is a breath of fresh air these days. I have made mention in previous blogs, especially during the pandemic and the last administration, that modern folkies and punk rock artists were missing the mark on releasing relevant music. The protest songs of days gone by that inspired emotion in those fighting against so much have all gone quiet. Their singers and writers having long retired or passed from this world. Modern songs remain mired in lost loves and whiskey bottles while the world burns. Thank fucking goodness for the words of Woody Guthrie and the music of the Dropkick Murphys for bringing it all back to the surface. We are all fighting against so much these days. We fighting for fair wages, fair housing, medical care that won’t bankrupt us, having enough to eat and clean water to drink. We fight for equality. We fight for our very rights and the rights of our children. There is much to be said for having a fresh batch of songs to inspire us on the picket lines, the protest parades, and in the clubs when we get together for a little stress relieving music fellowship.
This Machine Still Kills Fascists was recording with care at The Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s very near the Woody Guthrie center, an archive and cultural center run by Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter. Her son Cole played guitar and Dobro on the record, bringing things all the more full circle. It was Cole’s love of Dropkick that first brought them to Nora’s attention many years ago (or so I read) which makes me smile – as a Woody fan and as a mom who often trades songs with my son who is also a punk fan, a budding folkie, and a musician. The best news of all is that there are another ten tracks in addition to these that will be released on a Volume 2 some time next year. I am here for it. I can’t wait.