I always go back to Woody. He was unique, exceptional and brilliant – the first.
I decided that a Woody Guthrie day is in order. He always does it for me.
Woody wrote this back in the 1940s! Eighty years on it’s even worse! But it certainly describes America as the epitome of capitalism.
He compares it to a car:
‘This private profit machine
Has got eight cylinders.
Greed. Fear. Lies. Hate.
Jail. Court. Asylum. Tomb.’
That about sums it up!!!
I’m presently reading this book on Woody Guthrie – it’s got some great quotes:
‘If I was President Roosevelt
I’d make the groceries free –
Give away new Stetson hats
And let the whiskey be.
I’d pass out suits of clothing
At least three times a week –
And shoot the first big oil man
That killed the fishing creek,’
My kind of sentiments!!
So who are those huddled masses that the USA took in? The refugees from Europe. The ones who were at the bottom of the heap, who could barely survive in the overcrowded cities of Europe; who were looking for space and opportunities.
Perhaps the ancestors of many of those now living in places like New Mexico and Texas? The intrepid pioneers who set off across America in wagon trains; who suffered hardship; who fought off the Native Americans and fought wars against the Mexicans; who took the land off those who lived there; who settled it and farmed, mined and hunted. Those are the ones.
Who are the huddled masses now?
The hard-pressed from Central America and South America, the Mexicans and Muslims from war-torn Middle East.
The dispossessed, frightened, hungry and oppressed looking for space, freedom and opportunities.
Who are the ones most stringently opposing their entry?
Perhaps it is time to take the Statue of Liberty down??
This is a short extract from the book on Woody Guthrie that I’m presently reading – Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues by Will Kaufman.
I’m enjoying it – even if at times it reads like a document submitted for a PhD.
‘Woody Guthrie even viewed the Capitalist system, which he hated, as an automobile.
This private profit machine
Has got eight cylinders
Greed. Fear. Lies. Hate.
Jail. Court. Asylum. Tomb.
Woody sure had a way of summing things up!
Guthrie’s guitar slogan ‘This machine kills fascists’ is fascinating. First it highlights that a musical instrument is merely a machine and secondly it suggests that the power of reason is sufficient to change someone’s deep held views. I don’t know if that is true. Fascism is a corruption that spreads like pus from a burst appendix. It corrupts and degrades and produces the most terrible fevers and stench. It has to be disinfected or contained. Once it has caught hold it twists minds and eats away kindness until all that’s left is rancid hatred. Can love and reason turn that around? I guess you have to catch it young and educate those minds so that you inoculate them against this rancid cancer. It doesn’t stop me wanting to kill the bastards! I have to remind myself that violence begets violence, hatred breeds hatred and revenge merely creates cycles of revenge. As individuals and as a race we need to control our endocrinal urges and supersede them with cortex power – brain over glands – head over heart. Woody Guthrie knew that. He knew that you couldn’t kill fascism with a gun; you had to use education.
Billy burst upon the unsuspecting public in in the post-punk vacuum of 1983. After the acerbic vitriol of Punk it had all gone daft with neo-romantic silliness. The politics and nihilism had burnt itself out.
Billy was an unlikely Rock star and a strange conundrum as a political figure. He was ex-army and opposed to war, a working-class kid from Barking with avowed left-wing politics. Motivated and energised by Punk, particular the stance of the band Clash, he had set out to plough his own furrow oblivious to trends, fashion or the market. He stood out as a voice against inequality, the Tories, racism and the Falklands war. He hit out at the press and the establishment with no punches pulled.
The first time I heard Billy was a short burst on TV of him busking around with a shoulder harness with two speakers, a distorted guitar spitting violence and a nasally voice with a strong North London accent that was never going to make the chorus of any opera. It was forceful and exciting. The lyrics were meaningful and barbed. I was smitten. This was just my cup of tea.
It was no surprise that his raw, aggressive sound appealed to John Peel. He always went for the real stuff as opposed to the overproduced and sophisticated. He supported Billy and gave him a platform. What was surprising was that this unlikely formula of unrefined sound and unleashed politics appealed to a wider audience. His albums began to sell and he even stormed the charts with Between the Wars – a great song about the Falkland travesty. Billy had credibility. He could sing about war because he’d been in the army. He had the perspective.
Far from initially ameliorating his caustic posture his new-found fame was put to use supporting the causes that he felt close to his heart. He put his guitar where his mouth was and got out there supporting the Miners in their struggle against the political machinations of Thatcher and the Tory government and the lies of the media. He took up with Red Wedge to support the Labour Party against the hated Tories. He supported the anti-racist groups. Billy used his fame to promote the causes and views he believed in, performed numerous benefit concerts, news conferences and TV appearances and spoke intelligently with a firm grasp of history and the current political debate. He carved himself a reputation and gathered a following though it alienated a number in the process.
I saw him perform at this time in the Trade & Labour Hall in Hull as part of the Red Wedge tour. There were the Labour MPs Tam Dalyell and John Prescott. This was the time of the Teachers strike action and as a NUT Rep I was organising strike action in my school and speaking at the regional executive. I button-holed Prescott and had a go about the state of education and was he and the Labour Party going to support the teachers. He seemed to think that all teachers were Tory voting middle-class fully fledged members of the enemy. In an expletive laden diatribe, at maximum volume, he said he’d be prepared to give the teacher’s a pay rise in line with the percentage that voted Labour. He was a bit out of touch with reality. Billy, on the other hand, was right on the money. His voice barked, words hit home and guitar scorched with distorted fury. It warmed the blood, sent the neurones buzzing with electricity and sent you home with newfound idealistic fervour. It was a rattling concert.
For me the next series of albums were disappointing. Billy seemed to have watered down his zeal, adopted a more sophisticated approach, learnt to play the guitar so that it sounded normal, toned down his lyrics to deal more with relationships, bought better equipment so that the distortion was no longer there and come up with a more Poppy style. It might have proved more popular. It might have broadened his appeal so that it brought in people from outside his normal sphere of influence but I craved the raw, radical fire-breather.
Fortunately the live concerts were not so watered down and the raw Billy was still there to be heard in all his might and fury. At the end of a concert he was always there to talk and sign albums. There was none of that star posturing and distance. He was the same.
It was no surprise when the Woody Guthrie estate, who were looking for people to put music to, and record, Woody Guthrie lyrics from the large archive Woody had left, that they should turn to Billy. Who better was there? Billy Bragg had been playing and living the same political stance as Woody. He’d stood up there in the face of hostility, on the picket lines and fought for freedom and justice just as Woody had done. The result was magical. Billy brought those Woody Guthrie lyrics to life and captured the spirit of Woody Guthrie perfectly. If Woody had been alive to hear it he would have delighted in the job well done.
Not that Billy had chosen to go back to his early brutal manner; he has done the work with tenderness, sophistication and style but the sincerity and emotion set it apart. This was full of melody and beauty as well as passion and was equal to the best of Billy.
I was delighted to find Billy, with his band featuring Ian McLaughlin of the Smallfaces, doing as rousing performances as even Billy did in his early days. We roared out ‘You fascists bound to lose’ with gusto and left buoyed and energised.
Billy is one of those rare breed who has been true to himself and an inspiration to all around him. His music touches the parts other choruses can’t reach. He continues to knock me out.
Favorite bands? Roy Harper, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs.
* First band you saw live? The Birds (with Ronnie Wood) then Them with Van Morrison – both brilliant.
* Band you have seen the most? Roy Harper (500+ times)
* Best festival? Windsor Jazz & Blues with Cream or Woburn Abbey with Hendrix
*Bands you wished you’d seen? Howlin’ Wolf, Beatles
* Furthest you have travelled for a concert? Grateful Dead in San Francisco – although I did see the Hot Potato Band in Australia!
* Ever met a band? Loads – Roy Harper, Syd Barrett, Free, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Magic Band, Country Joe & Fish, Nick Harper, Stiff Little Fingers, Buzzcocks, Incredible String Band…………. Back in the day you could just wander backstage and chat.
* Best gigs? Hundreds – Roy Harper at St Pancreas Town Hall, Captain Beefheart at Middle Earth, Doors at Roundhouse, Jimi Hendrix at Woburn, Pink Floyd at UFO, Son House at Hammersmith Odeon.
* Best venue? Eel Pie Island. Les Cousins in Greek St, Middle Earth or Toby Jug (saw Pete Green and Led Zep there)
* Worst venue? Loved ’em all!
* Smallest gig? I saw Arthur Brown in 1969 with just seven of us. He did his entire act full on. I saw the Nashville Teens with just nine of us. They also did their entire act full on. The best small gig was Nick Harper in a tiny room in Leeds – It was crammed and everyone sang. Also saw Jackson C Frank in a pub in Ilford back in 1969 – small audience superb gig.
* Last gig? Loudhailer Electric Company in Hull.
* Next gig? Jeff Beck in York or Nick Mason in York.
Woody Guthrie rambled round in the thirties, forties and fifties in America. He travelled with black and white alike. He stood for fairness and justice. He stood on picket lines with working men striking for a fair wage and fair treatment. He opposed injustice, racism, sexism and elitism.
He wrote songs like nobody had ever heard before.
The quote I am going to give from him is the one he painted on his guitar –
‘This machine kills fascists’
It is a simple concept for a complex issue. He was saying that you do not destroy poisonous ideology like fascism and fundamentalism with guns – you destroy them with music, with words, with education. You change the minds not blow up the bodies.
That has informed my life.
Music is a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and awakening their humanity and love of their fellow men and women. The guitar was Woody’s weapon and a powerful one it was too.
Education is the other tool.
We won’t defeat ISIS on the battlefield alone – we need to educate the fools who believe in violence.
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