Folk You: This Machine Kills Fascists!
Folk music in the Sixties were laced with doses of lyrical protest. The Eve of Destruction dawned across the land, you know, the land that is my land, your land, made for you and me. In the Fifties, it was the Beat Generation that held up the poetic mirror to modern society, as modern as the space age Fifties could be. Post war prosperity and victory brought the fear of cold war annihilation and a generation of disenfranchised American’s were “beat” as far down as society could push them. Folk music blended with poetry in the coffeehouse circuit of the East Village in New York to North Beach in San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg was howling his ass off as the voice of a new generation, Kerouac documented it with a typewriter, and folk music was making statements with music and lyrics. Tame at first in the Fifties, by the Sixties, the merely pleasing vocal harmonies of folk groups were changing, they were coming of age and the New Riders of the Purple Sage were riding the range.
As the Sixties dawned and German Shepard Police Dogs and municipal fire hoses were keeping drinking fountains and diners white only and segregation was about to ignite and explode into an inferno consuming a dividing a nation. James Meredith, young school girls victims of racist bombings of schools and churches, three young college students from the north who came to register black voters were found in an earthen embankment, and a mother from Detroit found murdered for daring to come south and volunteer for civil liberties. This does not count the hundreds of locals who were beaten, jailed, hung or shot.
love and understanding were on the march for civil rights
The bards and the poets of peace, love and understanding were on the march for civil rights in the south, American involvement in Vietnam, ban the bomb and nix the nukes. Women’s Liberation was in full bloom and bra’s were burned, joining the already raging bonfire of draft cards and American flags. Bare breasts could now show off their purple mountains majesty from sea to shining sea from B Cups to D Cups.
Along with the marchers, came the writers of protest such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs, Buffy St. Marie, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and so many others including some guy you may have heard of from Hibbing, Minnesota named Bob Dylan along with a young man named Guthrie… Arlo Guthrie. However, long before Arlo came flying into Los Angeles, carryin a couple of keys, and Bob Dylan answered the question that had been blowing in the wind, there was another earlier wind, the winds of the Dust Bowl Thirties, where folk music took a left turn and Woody Guthrie was bound for glory with a guitar and a pocketful of songs about poverty, socialism, and injustice. Guthrie’s message were clear and concise, and it was simple and displayed on his guitar in bold letters: “This Machine Kills Fascists!”
Woody traveled the country and experienced firsthand the hardships plaguing American citizens. The dust bowl had caused an upheaval in society and the great migration from the heartland to the promised land of California was underway. Route 66 was the Highway of Immigrants as Steinbeck called it, and it was fate that brought Guthrie and Steinbeck into a close orbit where their friendship would form a deadly duo of that would rip the facade of capitalism away to reveal the poverty of a nation. Woody would play at Socialist and Communist functions throughout California, although no records indicate he was an actual registered member of the party.
Woody Guthrie – “Hard Travelin”
In addition to singing, Guthrie was also recorded by Alan Lomax, had his won radio show and wrote a column for the Daily Worker. In 1940 he played at the Farm Workers Aid Benefit put on by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers… decades before Willie Nelson got into the fray. It was at this concert that Guthrie met Pete Seeger…a legendary pairing that would inspire the future giants of folk from Ramblin Jack Elliot and Phil Ochs to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez along with countless others.
A Journey along Creeque Alley
As for groups, the Mugwumps emerged from the gray streets of the East Village in New York. It was small club folk ensemble that included Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty who both later would become one half of the Mama’s and Papa’s after they discovered California Dreamin. One member Zal Yanovsky who with friend, fellow folkie and sometimes Mugwump John Sebstian both believed in magic, would form The Lovin’ Spoonful. Listen to the song “Creeque Alley” by the Mamas and the Papas you’ll hear the musical journey of Cass and Denny’s transition from Mugwump to Mom and Pop. Included along the Creeque Alley journey are good friends Roger McQuinn of Byrds fame and Barry McGuire who penned and sang “Eve of Destruction”. (McQuinn and McGuire, just a gettin’ higher in LA you know where that’s at..and no ones getting fat except Mama Cass.)
The Mamas & The Papas – “Creeque Alley”
The stage was set…the music was about to turn further left and take it’s message on the road to the people as the folk scene grew more militant. It was time for a change, because as we now know and some of us did know then..the times were a’changin’ , the generations were split like the atom at the Trinity Site and parents were told in no uncertain terms, “You’re sons and your daughters are beyond your command.”
If the fifties were sociologically antiseptic with Madison Ave. ring-a-ding ding martini lunches, Leave It To Beaver and consumerism cranked on overload; the Sixties were by comparison a plain brown bag holding a cheap bottle of wine that spilled out onto the streets of the south as the Civil Rights movement went on the march with no turning back. The point of no return had been crossed. In Greenwich Village in hard, concrete, grey New York, folkies were sounding the alarm through thought provoking lyrics set against an acoustic background. The scene was exploding as the Beat Generation began to take up the battle cry. The Village gave birth to a prolific folk scene that included notables from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Phil Ochs. Although Bob Dylan has achieved the most renown, it was Tom Paxton that jump started the whole shebang. According to Dave Von Ronk, “Bobby was the most visible standard bearer of folk, but Tom really was it’s founder.”
Paxton hit the scene in the early ’60s and began writing songs of protest that eventually included “Bottle of Wine” and “The Ballad of Spiro Agnew” which later the lyrics were changed to “The Ballad of George W.” In 1964, three young civil rights workers from the north were KO’d by the Klan in the south, and Paxton’s ballad “Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney” is still haunting today. Tom also put his guitar where it counted. He led a group of fellow travelers and fellow folkies to play for and lend support the striking coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky.
Tom Paxton – “Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney”
Paxton moved to England years ago, but kept active all these years while garnering award after award, but the biggest honor for any folk musician is to have had the impact that he did on society and the folk movement as a whole. As a musician in general, having a guitar line named after you is far better than a cheap bottle of wine. In 2004 the Martin Guitar Company introduced the Tom Paxton Signature Edition acoustic guitar in his honor. Then along came the Folk Music Cowboy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Born in Brooklyn, where most young kids wanted to grow up to be gangsters, Jack wanted to be a cowboy after sitting in the stands at many a rodeo at Madison Square Garden. Forget the Knicks. Shit kickin’ cowboys were busting bronco’s and busting balls in the arena had young Jack whipped up into a frenzy. So, like any cowboy to be he left home at 15 and hooked up with a traveling rodeo and it was there he was influenced by a rodeo clown who wrote songs and poetry and played guitar. The die was cast and Jack was on the Santa Fe Trail blazing a path to the folk scene of New York.
Elliot taught himself guitar and eventually Woody Guthrie would stay awhile with him learning to master the guitar and to write songs of social relevance. In an interview with Arlo Guthrie he stated that he was too young when his father died to really know him and it was Ramblin’ Jack that taught Arlo his father’s style. Curiously he was not only a father figure to Arlo, but mistaken many times as the father of Bob Dylan! Interestingly enough, Bob who was heavily influenced by Ramblin’ Jack also wrote songs that Jack covered in concert. He would precede the song with “This song was written by my son, Bob Dylan.” Arlo and Bob can thank the fates that they had a “father” in Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”