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Bad presidents make for good music

Tom Morello talks Woody Guthrie, public enemies, and ‘Old Man Trump’



Tom Morello

Tom Morello first made a name for himself as a founding member of Rage Against the Machine, one of the 90s’ most iconic bands, which sold millions of records and whose populist political message remains relevant today. After breaking from Rage, Morello formed Audioslave with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, achieving triple-platinum success with the band’s first release. His lesser-known singer-songwriter alter ego, The Nightwatchman, channels his folk influences: Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Currently, Morello is recording and touring with the supergroup Prophets Of Rage, which features members of Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and, of course, Rage Against The Machine. 

Last month, he was named the first member of the Woody Guthrie Center’s Artist Advisory Board. Other members now include Steve Earle, John Mellencamp and Ani DiFranco.

“The Woody Guthrie Center is proud to have artists who follow in Woody’s footsteps as part of our Artist Advisory Board,” said Deana McCloud, director of the Woody Guthrie Center. “By sharing messages of diversity, equality, and social justice, these artists continue Woody’s work by being the machines that promote these values.” 

Morello, a self-described non-sectarian socialist, is actively engaged in the fight for social justice. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, he encourages people to “show up, join up, read up, stand up, and rise up.” And, like Guthrie, he believes in fighting for a world “where no one is hungry, no one is homeless and everyone gets a chance.” 

The Tulsa Voice: How did you come to be involved with the Woody Guthrie Center’s Artist Advisory Board? 

Tom Morello: Well, being a long time fan of Woody Guthrie and someone who has been inspired by both his music and his activism, I’ve been involved in a number of Woody Guthrie events. I was approached by the museum—at its inception—to donate some items and we’ve been in touch since. 

As a protest singer-songwriter myself, I consider myself as one of the links in the chain—that also includes Woody Guthrie and, hopefully, the museum—of getting to continue his legacy and the idea that music matters. 

TTV: What does it mean for you, as a politically-minded musician who’s been influenced by Woody Guthrie, to now be directly involved with the preservation of his legacy? 

TM: Well, it’s a great honor because Woody’s life example and musical example is one that all protest songwriter acolytes aspire to, ya know, whenever there is a call to action, the idea—which Woody did not invent but in some ways perfected—that one person with a guitar can travel fast and sing loud at the barricades wherever the issues of the day manifest themselves and that music and culture can play a part in determining the outcome. So to help preserve, protect, and present his work and legacy for current and future generations is a great honor. 

TTV: What are your practical duties as an artist advisor? 

TM: [laughing] I think that is to be determined. I look forward to finding out myself exactly what they are. But I’m available! 

TTV: Have you spent much time in Tulsa?

TM: Ya know, I think I’ve played there twice through the years, but I have not spent time there in Tulsa. Not yet. 

TTV: Guthrie was a proud socialist and used his music to protest social injustices and inequality. You’ve done the same throughout your career. How does Guthrie’s message resonate in today’s political climate? 

TM: Well, Woody Guthrie would have certainly had a lot to say in today’s political climate. He would’ve been at the Women’s March, he would’ve been at the airports supporting Muslim immigrants. He was a person that’s had a clear class-based vision and always stood up for the underdog. He was also an ardent opponent of racism and fascism and in these times when racism and fascism are on the ascent in the United States, Woody’s legacy of uncompromising resistance to oppression, both as an artist and as a human, is inspirational. 

TTV: Last year, during the election campaign cycle, we learned that Woody Guthrie knew Donald Trump’s father as his landlord, and even wrote an unproduced song about him called “Old Man Trump.” You, Ryan Harvey and Ani DiFranco ended up recording the song last summer. Can you talk about that experience? What does that song mean to you, and what do you think Guthrie would have thought about Old Man Trump’s son in the White House? 

TM: Sure! [laughing] It was Ryan Harvey who unearthed that song for me to hear it. At first I, kind of couldn’t believe it, the historical circumstance of Trump’s father [still laughing], ya know, mistreating [can’t stop laughing]... this discovery, ha! It comes as no surprise. But these issues echo through the ages and the two things you can be certain of is before, during, and after Trump there will be injustices perpetrated [against] the poor, minorities, ya know, the underclass. But you can be just assured that there will be resistance to those injustices and that is what we are counting on. 

The struggle for liberation in this country goes back for hundreds of years and it will continue during and after Trump. Woody Guthrie certainly—one of his great achievements—was providing a soundtrack for that struggle for liberation during his time and I’ve attempted to be one of the people who does the same during mine.  

TTV: A variation of the term public enemy, “public enemy number one,” was first used in the 30s to describe individuals whose activities were considered criminal and damaging to society. What or who would you consider America’s public enemy number one to be? 

TM: I would say America’s number one public enemy is apathy, and it is being overcome. My hope is that this outrageous and atrocious Trump/Pence regime will bring into being the movement that will not only overthrow it but that will help to transform the United States of America into a more just and decent place. 

TTV: Besides yourself, are there any current working artists you see as carrying on the legacy of Woody Guthrie’s work and message? 

TM: Yeah, sure! I founded a record label called Firebrand Records to help promote artists whose work is, ya know, trying to change the world and so we have a roster of them. From The Last Internationale to Ike Riley to Sun of None to Built For The Sea, ya know, those are all artists I know personally and fight the power with on a daily basis in their songs and in their lives. 

Man, I think bad presidents make for good music and so I think we’ve already seen a kind of uptick of songs about the current state of affairs, and I think that will only continue. 

TTV: Can Tulsa expect a visit from you or any of your projects in the near future? 

TM: I am hopeful. Right now Prophets are playing South America and Europe in spring and summer but hopefully either as Prophets or myself will be coming through Oklahoma by the end of the year or early 2018. 

TTV: I assume that will include a stop at The Woody Guthrie Center? 

TM: It better!

For more from Ty, read his interview with Third Eye Blind.