This Land Is Your Land, Woody Guthrie's most famous song, is played more than once on this DVD, and this phrase is the mantra at the heart of this excellent documentary. Guthrie's enduring appeal stems from his organic socialism informed by his life on the hard highways of the United States, coupled with his knack for composing absorbing folk melodies, not to mention his deeply poetic sensibility. It is these gifts that are at the core of this documentary, brought to light by insightful, touching and immaculately researched comment.
I challenge anyone to find a figure in 20th Century music that had a more remarkable life. His story reads like a William Faulkner novel, and contains too many events to begin to describe. Briefly, Guthrie suffered a childhood blighted by the death of his sister in a house fire and his mother's Huntingdon's disease. He went on to withstand the Great Depression, vicious dust storms that devastated America's south, seeing ships sink and men burn in wartime, two marriages and the heartbreaking death, also in a house fire, of daughter Cathy Ann. And this just skims the surface.
But it is the 6000 songs he wrote that are the essence of the man, and the snippets of these are reason enough to buy this DVD alone. We get insights from various surviving family members, the 84 year old sage that is Pete Seeger, and countless knowledgeable historians. Billy Bragg is a well-meaning, if slightly wooden, narrator.
Despite his unique life, the documentary wisely resists mythologizing him. Interviewees freely talk about his philandering, extreme anger and the fact he initially started playing guitar to merely get laid. Throughout his life, it seems Guthrie, in that very American way, heard the highway calling. But his rambling took its toll on the family he neglected.
But all this is overlooked when we consider his legacy, firstly musically. Guthrie's tunes are innovative in their simplicity, a timeless austerity that connects directly, instantly and powerfully with the listener. It has been said before that Guthrie was the first punk, and these ingredients certainly back up this claim. Yet he was also a gifted improviser. Frequently he stepped on stage and made up his chords and lyrics as he went along, demonstrating his innate musical sophistication that the punk label does not do justice to.
Then, of course, there are his politics. Guthrie's outcries through song on behalf of trade unions and the poverty stricken still resonate today. His gentle Marxism was based on a wish to help his fellow man, to practice selfless humanity everyday and rail against the big business that exploited hapless workers in his beloved south. He passionately believed in his 'right to be against any evil, greedy person'
His influence is spread across the latter half of the last century, from Dylan to The Clash to Uncle Tupelo, and Guthrie stands up with Walt Whitman as a poet who so wonderfully effectively 'wrote America'. This Machine Kills Fascists will make your mind boggle with extraordinary songs and tragic tales. The only problem is that with his life being such a cosmos, the running time is over three hours. But it's worth every second.