Introduction: This Medium Kills Fascists
Woody Guthrie, the quintessential American folk protest musician, is famous for writing This Machine Kills Fascists on the body of his Gibson Southern Jumbo acoustic guitar. Guthrie states, “‘music is a weapon, the same as a gun, and can be used by the slave just the same as the big boss” (Guthrie qt in Carpenter 2018). According to the folk singer, the guitar and the gun are similar in the sense that both can be instruments of rebellion and catalysts for change. Though the guitar cannot physically kill anyone, it is just as dangerous as the gun, and when the big boss sees the slave playing his guitar, he better be worried.
From the Rebellion on the shores the Stono River in 1739 to Black Lives Matter protests in the present day, music has played and continues to play a vital role in social protests. If, according to Marshall McLuhan’s often repeated phrase, “The medium is the message” (McLuhan 1964), and as Guthrie says, fascist-killing is a function of the machine itself, then how can an understanding of the different media used for social protest in American popular music help use to better understand and define protests? How have the properties of different musical instruments shaped and driven rebellions? What do the instruments used in protest say about the people using them, and how does the commercialization of popular music and musical instruments affect the peoples’ revolt?
The following essays will explore these questions about the changing media for social protest in American popular music. The first essay, Whose Protest? What Popular Music? What Media? defines several key terms for the purposes of this essay and outlines the relationship between media, social protest, and popular music in America. The second essay, Protest in an Age of Commercial Music will engage with questions about capitalism and commercialization as they intersect with musical protest. How have musicians capitalized on the commercialization of musical instruments to enact their social protests?