- 24 Oct 22
Putting music to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics is a serious undertaking, but Dropkick Murphys and their new album This Machine Still Kills Fascists are equal to it. “These songs need to be sung now more than ever,” Ken Casey tells Pat Carty. Photo: Dave Stauble.
When Woody Guthrie, the folk/protest singer songwriter who stood up to be counted, sported a ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ sticker on his guitar, wrote songs like ‘This Land Is Your Land’, and influenced everyone from Dylan on down, published his Bound For Glory autobiography in 1943, The New Yorker wrote that he was “a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world.”
“I love that he was appreciated like that,” smiles Dropkick Murphys main man Ken Casey down the Zoom line, from Massachusetts if his accent is anything to go by. “He was and is a national treasure, and I can recall being introduced to him in second grade in Catholic school, when I heard ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and they said ‘this is the people’s national anthem’.”
The ‘Murphys’ new record, This Machine Still Kills Fascists, is written around unpublished Guthrie lyrics, but the connection to the family goes back decades.
“About twenty years ago we connected with Nora [Guthrie, Woody’s daughter] because her son Cole [who plays on the new record] had a Dropkick Murphys poster on the wall. He thought his grandfather would have appreciated some of our sentiments and the things we sing about. Nora reached out and offered us a chance to look through the archives, which at the time were in New York. I had to wear special white gloves in this temperature-controlled room and I got to hold actual piece of papers that the songs were written on. I’m telling you, I’ve been to the Louvre and I’ve seen The Mona Lisa and all that, but those pages were alive. He dated every page and would oftentimes write where he was in America, it was amazing to see how much of the country he saw. He was writing with first-hand knowledge in a lot of these instances. We took a couple of lyrics and recorded a few of them back in the day, one of them of course being ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’.”
‘Gonna Be A Blackout Tonight’ on their fourth album, 2003’s Blackout, came first but ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’, initially issued as the B-Side to their version of ‘Fields Of Athenry’, is far better known. The howling punk/Irish hybrid uses lyrics that Casey found in the archives and, when it featured in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed in 2006, it opened some doors.
“It allowed us into third-tier markets in America, like Fargo, North Dakota or places like that. We’re a seven-piece band, we’ve a lot of people working for us, and we don’t charge an exorbitant ticket price so there is a bottom line of how many people need to show up before it makes sense. The Departed opened markets that we hadn’t built from the ground up through touring. Our career was built by going to Detroit and playing to one-hundred people. You came back the next time and there were three-hundred, the next time there was five and so on. But to be able to go to these places and there were a thousand people there or whatever. It helped.”
Take Me Back To Tulsa
Despite this, they took their time approaching a full-on Guthrie project.
“We talked about doing a full album for twenty years and I’m really glad that for whatever reason – touring, writing our own records – it’s happening now because I think we’re more prepared musically to do an album that stretches outside our comfort zone, artistically and instrumentally and I also think, subject matter wise, these songs need to be sung now more than ever.”
One might assume that working with Guthrie’s lyrics would be slightly intimidating, but Casey felt an affinity with what he found in the archives.
“I feel he’s saying the words that I would want to come out of my mouth. Nora paid me the compliment of saying something like I’m the master of understanding her father’s lyrics, and when I went to his home town of Okemah, I had this creepy feeling I’d been there before. The words are just how I’d want to say them and even how I’d want them to flow, so it felt very natural. When I looked at those words on the page, the melody, in most instances, came into my head immediately.”
As well as visiting Woody’s hometown in Oklahoma, the band also recorded the album in Tulsa.
“That was hugely important because his archives and the museum are now a quarter of a mile from the studio, so most mornings we would start by getting a cup of coffee and then stopping by – they gave us free rein to come in whenever we wanted – so we’d walk around and be inspired. I gotta say, throughout my life as a music fan, when The Clash went to Jamaica or whatever, I was like, ‘That’s bullshit! They just wanted to go on a trip, it doesn’t really get you in a mindset’, but we felt the Oklahoma spirit and it was really instrumental in making the album.”
‘Cadillac, Cadillac’ could be a Clash song, and ‘Two 6’s Upside Down’ would slot onto a Springsteen album seamlessly. The Boss appeared on 1988’s Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album alongside U2 and other luminaries, a record that Casey’s familiar with. He makes a valid point when I bring up the two Mermaid Avenue albums that Billy Bragg and Wilco released, which were also based around previously unheard Guthrie lyrics.
“Maybe they were preaching to the converted,” Casey argues. “I don’t mean that as a knock, I mean their fanbase is open to it, whereas our fanbase might be either not aware of it or not into it, so hopefully we’ll open some doors to new Woody fans. We tour internationally, we go to South America, we go to Japan, and it’s nice to do press in those places where they’re like, ‘We aren’t aware of this man at all’ That’s great, we’re opening a discussion about someone who’s important to history.”
Whose Side Are You On?
A folk song, according to Guthrie, tells you what’s wrong and how to fix it. Folk music was the people’s newspaper, similar to Chuck D’s definition of hip-hop as “the black CNN”. According to Casey, “these songs need to be sung now” and he certainly put his mouth where his money might be recently when he spoke out in no uncertain terms during a performance at The Great Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania, taking pointed aim at “the greatest swindler in the history of the world”.
“I’m kinda glad that went worldwide,” Casey says now. “But the discussion I was having was really with the people at the fair. As I walked around earlier in the day there were these people selling the ‘Joe Biden Sucks’ and ‘Make America Great’ t-shirts and people started to come up to me for photos wearing shirts that were pro the January insurrection. I said, ‘I’m not taking a picture with you with that shirt on!’ I started to realise that, ‘Holy shit, I’m in a different world here,’ and it made my blood boil a little bit. I’m not saying that every fan has to share our politics but I prefaced the talk by asking, ‘Who has been a fan of the Dropkick Murphys for a long time?’ A lot of people cheered. I asked, ‘Who here is a proud Irish-American?’ A lot of people cheered. ‘All right, if you’re a proud Irish-American who came here and was allowed to build a better life, then guess what? You don’t now get to say we’re full, let’s build a wall.’”
“Then I said, ‘Who here has been a proud union member and has been part of organised labour and has been able to earn enough to develop a middle-class life?’ A lot of people cheered. ‘Well then you can’t support the people who actively break unions in America!’ The conversation was directed to the people in that crowd but I don’t give a shit, I’ll say it to anyone, anywhere. What happened in America is that the greatest swindler on Earth has divided the working class and the middle class while a much darker scheme - the gerrymandering, the redistricting, and, basically, trying to have a minority control the whole country - is happening and we’re not paying attention because we’re fighting amongst ourselves.”
“When you talk about organised labour, we didn’t get the right to have a weekend off by being quiet and negotiating peacefully. You had to be loud and you had to stand up and fight, and the radical right is very loud and very obnoxious and very ugly, so maybe it’s time to be loud and obnoxious and ugly and stop trying to take the high road.”
I quote Woody’s lyrics to him. “When the enemy labours, we gotta labour. Not once, not twice, but ten times more.”
“That’s exactly what the song says,” he replies. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to be heard. We’re trying to not be ugly and not take the low road but sometimes, if they’re going low, you got to go lower.
There’s another line, in ‘The Last One’, “How can you worship the rich man…”
“‘How can you worship the rich man who sees poor folks and refuses them’, and, man, if that doesn’t sum up Donald Trump…”
Casey has said that his blood pressure went down when Biden got elected. Is that still the case, or is it rising again?
“It did, but that movement didn’t end with Trump. He set a model that others will now follow. It’s authoritarianism and fascism 101; the press is the enemy of the people, turn people against each other. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I do think that if, in the upcoming midterm elections, the democrats are able to trounce the republicans and then we’re able to trounce them again in the next Presidential election, that could put an end to things. Not that it will change their minds but there’ll be a shift where they’ll know they can’t win with this formula because the majority of Americans that are in the middle somewhere are turned off by this ugly message. It is what it is. We’ll keep speaking up.”
The promise to “keep speaking up” places Dropkick Murphys firmly in that tradition that stretches back to Guthrie.
“Look at the title of our first album. Do Or Die. It’s where we come from, whether it’s from the Woody era or the punk rock era, it’s about rebellion.”
And can the machine still take down fascists? Is it still an effective weapon?
“A guitar and a song can travel farther and wider than a bullet or a fist. Sing these songs and keep the focus on, keep the light shining on the horrible things that have happened, and maybe others will pay attention. I know we’re not going to change the mind of some ultra-right MAGA supporter - of course we’re not - but maybe we’ll change the mind of someone whose father is ultra-right. Ultimately, if we don’t change anyone’s mind, maybe we just need to sing these songs for our own sanity.”