The Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie: Unlikely but Well-Suited Partners

Music Features The Dropkick Murphys
The Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie: Unlikely but Well-Suited Partners

At first blush, the pairing of the Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie seems incongruous. The first is an urban rock ’n’ roll band, bashing out high-speed numbers like “Deeds Not Words” with punk guitars, rampaging drums and wailing bagpipes. The second was a rural troubadour, warbling hillbilly hymns like “This Land Is Your Land” with no accompaniment but his own acoustic guitar.

Yet when Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, invited the band to put some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics to music, the results were nothing less than sensational. The second attempt, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the story of a sailor who lost a limb climbing a ship’s topsail and is now going back to Massachusetts to obtain a wooden leg, became a favorite of their hometown fans. Then it was heard by the Band’s Robbie Robertson, who selected it for Martin Scorsese’s 2006 movie, The Departed. The following year the Boston Red Sox adopted it as an unofficial theme song as they stormed their way to a world championship.

And now the Dropkick Murphys have released This Machine Still Kills Fascists, a full album of 10 more Guthrie songs—with the promise of a volume two in 2023. The partnership now seems so inevitable that it’s hard to remember when it seemed dubious.

“I have to admit it, when the Dropkick Murphys picked ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ out of the stack of lyrics, I said, ‘Really? That one?’” says Nora, the manager of her dad’s estate. “The next thing I know it’s in a Scorsese movie. Then I’m watching the World Series on TV, and Jonathan Papelbon the relief pitcher is doing an Irish jig to the song. We had a hit, which we had never had before. So I’ve learned to trust the artists’ instincts.”

“We always felt comfortable with what Woody sang about and believed in,” adds Ken Casey, the Dropkick Murphys’ lead singer, “because we’ve always sung about those things. But from a musical perspective, it seemed a bit of a stretch. Upon further reflection, though, it made perfect sense. What we were doing with Irish music was very similar to what Woody was doing with country music. And, of course, American country music has its roots in the Irish stuff. Early in our career, we ignored those connections, because we were blasting through everything with power chords. Now that we’re older, we’re paying more attention to those links.”

Those ties are inescapable on a song like “Talking Jukebox” from the new album. Guthrie’s lyrics are not about a barfly describing the jukebox in the corner; they’re about a jukebox describing things from his point of view. He’s seen every helpless drunk, dishonest lover and angry brawler, and he’s got a song for each of them. To these words, the Dropkick Murphys have added a twitchy rockabilly guitar riff, a jungle drum beat and a growling vocal. The confrontational attitude of the words, written before Guthrie’s death in 1967 but never recorded in any form, has now found its musical equivalent.

“All of the artists I’ve asked to adapt Woody’s lyrics—Billy Bragg, Wilco, Del McCoury, John Mellencamp, all of them’” says Nora, 72, “I tell them the same thing: ‘Don’t try to be Woody. Don’t try to sound like him; don’t try to look like him. Just be yourself. When you hear Billy Bragg sing a Woody song, it sounds like Billy not Woody. Same with Ken Casey. My ideal is that Woody the person can fade, but the ideas and the words should carry on.”

Another barroom scene is evoked in the album’s opening track. A man is so distracted by his woman leaving him for another man that he loses 99 dollars in a poker game. He’s so distraught by his losses that he empties a .44 into his romantic rival’s chest. The killer is so easily caught that the judge sentences him to 99 years, which are, as the song title suggests, “Two 6s Upside Down.” To this numerical tragedy, the Dropkick Murphys supply a rockabilly groove as sharp as Johnny Cash’s hunting knife.

It sounds like rock ’n’ roll, but if you listen closely, you’ll notice that the band’s three guitarists are playing acoustic instruments, while drummer Matt Kelly is slapping the snare with brushes. It’s a reminder that amplification isn’t required for rock ’n’ roll; such pioneers as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers played acoustic guitar. And the semi-acoustic sound (Kevin Rheault plays an electric bass) provides a bridge between the band’s normal sound and Guthrie’s.

“Originally, we decided to use the acoustic instruments as a tribute to Woody and his time period,” explains Casey, 53, “but as we got into it, the tracks sounded more and more like a Dropkicks album. We found that we were a better band than we gave ourselves credit for; we didn’t need electricity to generate that beat and that energy. And the results were way better than our original idea. The acoustic version of the Dropkick Murphys has some Violent Femmes in it. In fact, the Femmes guest on one song on the second volume, coming out in the spring.”

Vol. 2, promised for St. Patrick’s Day, will include more songs from the same sessions at Leon Russell’s legendary Church Studio in Tulsa, across town from the Woody Guthrie Center, where his archives are now housed and partially displayed in a public museum. At the other end of the same block is the recently opened Bob Dylan Center with its own archives and museum.

“I’ve always been skeptical of people who say they’re recording in Jamaica to get inspired by the music,” says Casey. “‘Yeah, right; you just want a vacation.’ But I stand corrected. It was inspiring to drive over to Okemah, where Woody was born and walk the streets. It was inspiring to go to the Guthrie Center and see his artwork on display there for everybody to see.

“It was inspiring to record in Leon Russell’s studio with all these tourists coming by to see it. We even met George Harrison’s wife in one of those groups. We don’t have a lot of experience in rural America, which is like another planet. The center of the world is always where you’re at, so it was fascinating to see what the center of Woody’s world was.”

The Anglo-Celtic music that inspired Guthrie via the Carter Family and inspired the Dropkick Murphys via the Dubliners was a crucial connection point. But just as important, if not more so, was the shared commitment to bettering the lives of working people. Guthrie not only wrote songs about farmworkers (“Pastures of Plenty”), organized labor (“Union Maid”) and immigrants (“Deportees”), he also sang to those people in schools, union halls and outdoor camps.

The Dropkick Murphys have done the same, only with the rock ’n’ roll of this century rather than the acoustic folk music of the last. In fact, in October, the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ohio AFL-CIO “for a career of empowering working people through their music.”

“Folk music used to speak to working people,” Nora says, “but somewhere along the line, we lost that. That’s why I was so lucky to find the Dropkick Murphys, because they’re the working-man’s music for right now. As Ken says, their fans are those non-college-educated whites that everyone’s always talking about. The band is reaching out to an audience we’ve lost, an audience I dearly love, because it was Woody’s audience.”

“Ten years ago,” Casey points out, “if you said a band is out there speaking for human rights, it wouldn’t be big news. But now the Right’s bullying is so brutal that a lot of bands are keeping their heads down. But we’re going to sing what we want to sing and take the flak. How can I not, when I think of my grandfather down South when the Ku Klux Klan was threatening to kill Catholics? So many members of our families are union members.”

Few songs articulate that critique of society better than the album’s latest single, “The Last One,” a lost Guthrie lyric that eerily anticipated Bob Dylan’s question-asking anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “How can you call a man a man, when you treat him like a dog?” sings Casey. And he’s echoed by the Turnpike Troubadours’ Evan Felker, who sings, “How can you call a man a man when you kill him like a hog?”

Back and forth the dialogue goes over the fetching melody and the harmonica fills by the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons. “How can you like the United States,” the song continues, “and kill us for unitin’? How can you accuse us of being violent when you start all the fightin’?”

“The first time I heard the Turnpike Troubadours, they hit me like they were real, like I wanted to hear everything they did,” Casey explains. “They’ve done with their roots what we’ve done with our roots. So having Evan on this album made perfect sense. On our old songs, the bagpipes often carry the melody, but the pipes are just too loud for the acoustic guitars. But we realized that the harmonica could take their place, and our producer Ted Hutt had worked with Dom, and his playing fit seamlessly.”

Having two lead vocals on a song’s chorus has long been a trademark of the Dropkick Murphys, usually with Casey and Al Barr trading lines. But Barr was missing in action for this project, because he’s been home taking care of his ailing mother.

“That’s the way it should be,” Casey says. “Family should come first. Al won’t be able to rejoin us for the spring tour next year, but maybe the summer tour. I have to support him, because I would want him to support me if I were in that position.”

The band didn’t want to do an album of originals while Barr was on sabbatical, so this seemed a good time to do the Guthrie album they’d been talking about for years. Even with Barr missing, the band’s sing-along aspect is still strong. Casey trades lines with Felker on “The Last One” and with Nikki Lane on “Never Git Drunk No More,” a darkly comic dialogue between a husband promising to reform and his skeptical wife. On “Dig a Hole,” Guthrie’s own voice, recorded long ago for the Library of Congress, sings the first verse before Casey takes over with another rockabilly riff from the band.

Many of the songs feature Casey leading his bandmates in call-and-response vocals, as if a preacher in a punk-rock church. This is especially obvious on the sea shanty “Waters Are A’Risin’,” on the Clash-like rocker “Cadillac, Cadillac,” and on the foot-stomping, group-hollering blues “Ten Times More.” The latter track was done in one take even as Casey was inventing the melody and Matt Kelly the beat.

“It used to be Pete Seeger telling everyone to sing along,” Nora says, “and now it’s Ken doing a punk version of Pete’s call and response. Ken activates his audience. I love it when they’re standing up and screaming. That’s how I feel these days. You see politicians and pundits on TV and they’re so guarded, and I understand that. But I think a lot of us want to scream and we need a safe place to do that. Like the great comedians, the Dropkick Murphys are saying that we’re afraid to say out loud.”

Now that her father’s archives have been transferred to Tulsa, Nora has more time to pursue creative projects from her base in Mount Kisco, New York. Besides the Dropkick Murphys album, her biggest project has been the exhibit, Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song, which was at New York’s Morgan Library last year and is now at the Guthrie Center in Tulsa through February 5. The handsome book that accompanies the show, Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art • Words and Wisdom, has been published by Chronicle Books.

It was Nora’s son Cole Quest who turned her onto the Dropkick Murphys. In middle school, Cole had a poster of the band in his bedroom and the group’s music would leak out into the rest of the house. He grew up to play dobro and lead Quest & the City Pickers, a Brooklyn-based bluegrass band. When Nora told this story to Casey, he invited Cole to play on the sessions for this album.

“We were recording ‘Dig a Hole,’” Casey recalls, “and I could hear myself singing along with Woody. Then I looked over I saw Woody’s grandson playing dobro and singing along. It was surreal; the hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. To find myself sandwiched between the generations of that family was really special.”

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