Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Guitars I Dig: "This Machine KILLS Fascists"

"Funny thing 'bout these Minnesoty rain clouds. Evah cloud's a rain cloud!"

"Gonna rain hard on my guitar." I played a few notes without really noticing what I was doing. The air turned off cooler as we rolled along. A second later I looked up and saw two kids crawl from an open-top car just behind us: a tall skinny one about fifteen, and a little scrawny runt that couldn't be over ten or eleven. They had on Boy Scout looking clothes. The older one carried a pack on his back, and the little kid had a sweater with the sleeves tied together slung around his neck.

I'd seen a thousand kids just like them. They seem to come from homes somewhere that they've run away from. They seem to come to take the place of the old stiffs that slip on a wet board, miss a ladder, fall out a door, or just dry up and shrivel away riding the mean freights; the old souls that groan somewhere in the darkest corner of a boxcar, moan about a twisted life half lived and nine tenths wasted, cry as their souls hit the highball for heaven, die and pass out of this world like the echo of a foggy whistle.

"Kin ya really beat it out on dat jitter box dere, mister?"

"I make a rattlin' noise."

"Sing on toppa dat?"

"No. Not on top of it. I stand up and hold it with this leather strap around my shoulder, or else I set down and play it in my lap like this, see?"

"Make anyt'ing wid it?"

"I've come purty close ta starvin' a couple of times, boys, but never faded plumb out of th' picture yet so far."

I come down on some running notes and threw in a few sliding blues notes, and the kids stuck their ears almost down to the sound-hole, listening.

"Say, ya hit da boog on dere, don'tcha?"

"Better boog all yez wants, sarg," the older kid said. "I dunno how dat box'll sound fulla wadder, but we gon'ta be swimmin' on toppa dis train here in about a minnit."

"Will it wreck dat music box?"

The first three or four splats of rain hit me in the face . . . I said to the kids, "This water won't exactly do this guitar any good."

"Take dis ole sweater," the smallest kid yelled at me. "'S all I got! Wrap it aroun' yer music! Help a little!" I blinked the water out of my eyes and waited a jiffy for him to pull the sweater from around his neck. His face looked like a quick little picture, blackish tobacco brown colors, that somebody was wiping from a window glass with a dirty rag.

"Yeah," I told him, "much oblige! Keep out a few drops, won't it?" — Woody Guthrie,
Bound For Glory (A)

Guthrie evidently owned hundreds of guitars over the course of his, uh, career. As this scene illustrates, he was only marginally kinder to his "meal ticket" than he was to his own body. The ones that didn't fall apart were typically passed along to aspiring musicians. I'm not sure how many of his guitars survived to become museum pieces, but here is one such, minus the famous moniker.

Once again, Martin's luthiers rolled up their sleeves for a commemorative model. I'd be curious to strum one, just to hear the tone. My guess is Martin made a huge improvement on the cheap-o models that Guthrie favored. I'm also guessing the price tag is out of my range.

So it goes. There aren't nearly as many boys riding the rails, either — which, if you read the above scene in its entirety (and you should), is a very, very good thing. There are readers who think Guthrie romanticized the "hobo's" life, but they aren't reading closely. He occasionally idled toward the deceptively sweet in his portraiture, but consistently corrected himself and focused relentlessly on the terrible toll deprivation took on people.

Now here we are some seventy years later, collectively wondering what's next? In this the age of Fear Media there are more than a few ranting fascists I wish were silenced. But I don't have to go slumming with the mongers to realize I'm as prone as anyone to constructing a "fascist architecture of my own design."* A modest wish: the guitars might be behind glass, but here's hoping Guthrie's "machine" lives on to KILL the inner fascist, beginning with my own.

*Bruce Cockburn's phrase.


Joel said...

YOu know, I was just at a radical sing-along this weekend entitled "This Machine Kills Fascists". It's amazing how that phrase has stuck in the imagination across generations and, in the case of Australia, continents as well.
...Whether Woody Guthrie's machine actually did kill fascists is something I've always been a bit more skeptical on. I'm sure he irritated some of them, but I suppose that's not quite as catchy.

By the way, I had no idea he was an author before reading this post, and that short section is so captivating I'd be quite keen to read the whole book someday. If only my reading list wasn't always so backed up.
I'm assuming you read the whole thing?

dan horwedel said...

Just so you know, I simply love this series idea of yours. Thanks!

Whisky Prajer said...

Joel - I've read Bound For Glory many, many times. It is a terrifically evocative read, and I had a difficult time limiting the quoted passage to what I wound up with. For a guy like you I don't hesitate to make BFG a mandatory purchase (ditto: Joe Klein's bio).

Dan - thanks! I'll have to see what I can do to keep the list growing.