How did you first discover the work of Woody Guthrie?
My first memories of Woody was being taught at my Catholic grammar school about his song This Land and how it is considered to be the people’s national anthem. I came from a strong pro-union family so I perhaps connected with it in a way that most children wouldn’t.
Then I discovered music on my own aged about 12 and 13 and found that Joe Strummer and others revered him. That’s when I took a deeper dive into his work.
I found out what a rebellious spirit he had—that he would speak truth to power. It was part of shaping my youth along with all my punk idols.
What separates Woody from his contemporaries?
I always looked him as someone who had a well-rounded in life. His lived experience of being, as the song says, a “dust bowl refugee”. He also served in the war, he was well travelled and lived a life that was very much of first-hand personal experiences.
He represented the people of Oklahoma, but also represented the working class people of America and the world. It was a fascinating life.
How relevant is that class-based and sometimes apocalyptic feel of his work today?
For our album we focused more on the political. The return, especially in America, of fascism and the authoritarian nature of corporate greed.
It is also very relevant to the climate change perspective. Because as you’ll start to see in our country within the next ten years, fire, flooding and heat will leave areas of the US uninhabitable.
So, you’re going see people move to different areas with massive ramifications for the economy. What Woody was singing about in the 1930s is eerily relevant to today.
How did you approach tapping into such a vast archive of work and doing justice to his legacy?
I went into everything on multiple occasions. The first time was 20 years ago when the archive was in New York and you got to hold the actual pieces of paper he wrote on which was an almost spiritual experience.
One of the great things about Woody’s writing is he would always date the lyrics. Often he’d write where he was and a sentence or two of synopsis about what he was thinking.
Nora Guthrie and I collaborated on general themes that are relevant politically to current times and we also looked for themes important to the Dropkick Murphys. We ran every idea past her, but she made it clear that she trusted our intentions, so we did feel like we were on our own to do it the way we wanted. The project almost has a more historical feel to it than a musical one.
Until someone puts music to those lyrics, they are sitting in a box with no one seeing them. So it was a tremendous sense of honour & responsibility to take this on.
The album is very different to your previous work with many different musical styles. Was this a conscious decision?
Our influences are all over the map. Over the years we haven’t been shy to write a song that was out of our normal realm. Because this was a specific project and it was acoustic, we felt fully free to just go wherever the song took us.
Most of these songs came from me just having a melody pop into my head right as I read them off the paper and the instruments that happened to be in our hands. I feel like Celtic and Americana music are cousins.
Lots of it is played on the same instrumentation so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for us to come out with this different sound.
Are we going to hear all this stuff live?
In America we’re doing a full theatre tour where we’ll do the whole album live and acoustic with around 15 of our old songs. Giving them the same treatment. Like Shipping up to Boston with harmonica. Then we come back to England and to mainland Europe on our January tour.
We’re doing a little portion of the set with these songs and the acoustic stripped down sound. There’s also songs on the new record for example like All you Fonies that sound great electric so will probably we’ll probably do a few songs off this album like that.
Do you hope to bring Woody to a wider younger audience?
I think there’s people in America that could still benefit knowing about him and especially the things he was passionate about. But we are also a band that tours worldwide and hope to be able to open people’s eyes to Woody.
Hopefully they’ll go and dive into his back catalogue on their own. As a band we have always worn our influences on our sleeve.
What is giving you hope in the post-Trump US?
More fears than hopes I’m sad to say. But I think that the Make America Great Again movement is really starting to turn the stomachs of those people in the middle who really do make or break elections in America.
They might have voted for Trump because they were concerned about their tax breaks. But now, particularly with the new abortion restrictions, the “treason” allegations—the list goes on and on—this is seeing those numbers really shift away from him.
We need to trounce them in both the mid-term and 2024 presidential elections. If the right realise that this form of politics is not going to win then they’ll hopefully have to change their tune. Because the approach they are taking right now really incites the people that are prone to violence.
I have hope that America has said “enough is enough” to this kind of politics.
Is Biden able to pull working class people away from Trump?
I think he’s doing a great job with appointments like Marty Walsh, former Mayor of Boston and the son of Irish immigrants with great politics, to Labour Secretary.
Biden has had tremendous wins in passing bills that will fight climate change and bring more jobs to the American working class. But, sad to say, the fearmongering is also winning out.
You see trucks in Boston with a union sticker and a Trump sticker side by side. I don’t really understand how these two can coexist together. Like someone backs the union for their job and Trump for their racist beliefs?
Even within the foundations of the American working class, Trump has been able to prey on people, to use that fear to get us fighting amongst each other.
My favourite line off the new record is from the song The Last One. It says, “How can you worship the rich man who sees poor folks and refuses them?” I feel that sums up Woody and also the Trump era.
I would pose that question to everybody especially the Christian right wing. How can you worship the rich? Jesus certainly didn’t. Their beliefs just don’t add up to me.
How key are unions to tackling challenges like climate change and poverty?
First, as climate change forces new methods of how we create energy, that frontier has to be unionised or workers will be taken advantage of. The same goes for this whole new gig economy.
During the Trump era they went all out to try and break the backs of the unions. Tricking the working class to fight amongst each other while they were making policy changes to try and take away the power of organised labour.
Look at businesses such as Starbucks who had more profits than they’ve ever seen. If they just shared one percent of those profits with their workers they’d have a sustainable living wage and be able to contribute more to the economy. But instead someone like Jeff Bezos has so much money he is building rocket ships to go to the moon.
So we need to unionise on the new frontiers and rebuild our strength in the old ones. Like in strong north east American cities where labour unions were a stalwart. As the wealth gap increases and the power of the radical right increases, the fight is real and goes on every day.
If we don’t open our eyes now it’s going to be too late. I look at this as a life or death situation.
Versatile songs that pull no punches
Socialist folk legend Woody Guthrie was a prolific writer leaving behind volumes of lyrics that were never put to music. Irish American celtic‑punk band Dropkick Murphys have long produced explosive tunes steeped in class politics.
That’s why Guthrie’s daughter Nora chose them to help breathe new life into Woody’s unpublished work. The result is their new album, This Machine Still Kills Fascists.
This acoustic album has provided a real opportunity for the band to spread their musical wings. They take the listener on a wild journey through the world of one of America’s most important folk artists.
Driven by the distinctive punk vocals of Ken Casey, the ten tracks span styles including, country, rockabilly and even the cadence call of the exhausted platoon. The social themes they examine are typical of those Guthrie studied. Never Git Drunk No More and Two 6’s Upside Down delve into alcoholism and gambling addiction.
And a range of tunes that pull no punches put his political values into clear focus. Waters Are A’risin remembers the fallen of the Second World War.
Dig a hole is a glorious anti‑fascist anthem. And All You Fonies is a union battle cry to militantly fight the bosses and their supporters.
The relevance of all these themes for the world we live in today could not have been more eloquently spoken. Dropkick Murphys were clearly the right choice for such an important task.
This album should win praise from Guthrie’s fans while hopefully bringing his incredible talent and politics to a new audience.
This Machine Still Kills Fascists by Dropkick Murphys is out on Friday 30 SeptemberOriginal post