Woody Guthrie was the “original punk,” says Dropkick Murphys’ founder and lead singer, Ken Casey. “This guy’s out there preaching his mind. He went against the grain. He fought the good fight. That’s such a punk attitude.” Indeed, if Guthrie were alive today, he might hire Dropkick Murphys as his backup band.
On their new album, This Machine Still Kills Fascists, the Boston-based Celtic punk group brings Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics to life for the first time, delivering these songs with the same fervor, passion, and righteous indignation.
Like the man who wrote the lyrics, the band sings loud and clear about the working men and women whose bosses treated them as less than human. They sing of the notion of the American Dream, the unjust imprisonment of innocent people, and the kind of authoritarianism that required people to give up their will to leaders who cared more about themselves than about their followers.
The journey toward this album began about two decades ago.
In 2003, the group recorded Guthrie’s “Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight” for their album Blackout. About the same time, Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, discovered the band through her teenage son, Cole, who had a poster of them on his bedroom wall. In Casey’s vocals and the band’s determined, defiant songs about social inequities and injustices, she heard the spirit of her father’s songs.
“Nora always jokes that I have a good sense of her father,” says Casey. She invited him to the Woody Guthrie Archive in Oklahoma, where he had the opportunity to look through a treasure trove of Woody’s hand- and type-written lyrics. He discovered a few scribbled lines about Boston in Woody’s handwriting one day, and from them wrote “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” which appeared on the band’s 2005 release, The Warriors Code.
As the years went by, Casey and Guthrie stayed in close touch—he has visited the archive numerous times. Indeed, their close friendship gave rise to the band’s new album, whose title is a reference to the phrase Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar (“This machine kills fascists”).
About a decade ago, Nora started collecting many of her father’s never-before-published lyrics with Dropkick Murphys in mind. “A few years ago,” Casey recalls, “we finally had the chance to look closely at these lyrics. Woody had never recorded music for these lyrics. Some are completely typed-out songs. Some were more finished than others, and there were some pieces of paper with ideas scribbled all over the place.” As he was looking through the lyrics, Casey recalls, “most of the vocal melodies just popped into my mind.”
The band recorded at The Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, close to the Woody Guthrie Center. Nora’s son Cole played guitar and Dobro. The band recorded twenty songs during this session. Ten are on This Machine Still Kills Fascists. The other ten will appear on an album, Vol. 2, due next year.
The new album launches with the raucous “Two 6’s Upside Down,” with its chunky, choogling Johnny Cash-like guitar line. “This melody just popped into my head,” Casey says. “Woody used a lot of the same lyrics in multiple songs, and this is one of them. It’s the story of a hard-luck life, about a man being in jail and serving an amount of jail time that he didn’t deserve.”
Casey adds that, “many of Woody’s songs aren’t overtly political,” but this one makes a statement about the politics of incarceration by telling a poignant story of one man’s unjust treatment by the criminal legal system.
“Talking Jukebox” unfurls with a snarling menace and a punkabilly rhythm. The band recorded the stomping “Ten Times More” in one take in the studio, loved the spare, organic feel of it, and added only a few extra tracks.
“Never Get No More,” features singer-songwriter Nikki Lane. Casey says it was “written with the intent of being a duet, and not a lot of his lyrics were written like that.” The spry Celtic reel unfolds as a bright, animated conversation between lovers. One promises he won’t get drunk anymore but fails to live up to his promise. His love counters that if he continues to get drunk, she won’t let him in anymore.
Shimmering rhythm guitars and Dick Dale-like lead licks fuel the romping, roving “Cadillac, Cadillac.” “I kept seeing Woody standing on a corner,” says Casey. “[He’d be] watching a Cadillac drive by and admiring it, but knowing he’d never own one. That Cadillac was one image of the American Dream.”
The cascading “Waters Are A’risin” rolls gravely, with an elegant beauty, pulled from Guthrie’s time in the Merchant Marines. “Dig a Hole,” the closing track, is a rare, unheard recording Guthrie did for Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a song about World War II and its bitter realities. In the chorus, soldiers must dig a hole “in the cold, cold ground” to bury enemy Nazi soldiers.
Casey says that when he heard the track, he thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool for Woody to have a backing band, and that band was us? What was even cooler was that I was not only duetting with Woody but also with his grandson, Cole, who was duetting with his grandfather.”
As This Machine Still Kills Fascists readies for release, Casey believes Guthrie’s lyrics still speak loudly to our time. “He wrote these songs in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and focused on workers’ solidarity, unions, the rise of authoritarianism,” Casey says. “There are lots of similarities to our time. Woody asks in his songs: What are real American values? We’re asking those same questions today.”
This Machine Still Kills Fascists is available HERE.