Woody Guthrie is one of the most influential figures in the history of American folk and protest music. However, the world’s leading authority on Guthrie’s life and impact can be found far from the Dust Bowl Balladeer’s native Oklahoma. Will Kaufman, who has written three books on Guthrie, is Professor of American Literature and Culture here at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.
Books on Woody Guthrie
Will’s first book on Guthrie – Woody Guthrie, American Radical (2011) – traces Guthrie’s political awakening and activism throughout some of recent history’s most notable events, including World War II and the Civil Rights struggle. It is the first political biography of Guthrie.
This was followed by Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues (2017), which presents a new perspective on the musician: his engagements with modernity. The book explores Guthrie’s feelings about everything from the dynamics of gender and race to atomic power, war technology and the scientific method. It does so through an examination not only of Guthrie’s song lyrics, but also his novels, essays, drawings, abstract paintings, and sculpture.
Will’s third book about Guthrie, Mapping Woody Guthrie, will be published in 2019 and considers the impact of geography on his writings.
As the go-to expert on all things Guthrie, Will has often appeared on TV to discuss the musician. Most recently, he has been chief consultant for a BBC television documentary on Guthrie to be broadcast in 2019. In addition, he was consultant to Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp), who edited and published a newly discovered novel of Guthrie’s, House of Earth, in 2013.
But it is not only through writing and consultancy that Professor Kaufman – himself a keen musician and folksinger – makes his research accessible to the wider public.
Will speaks, sings and plays his guitar across the world in what he calls “live documentaries”. He has brought his research to life in this way, from New York to Yorkshire and beyond, performing to crowds at festivals, civic theatres and conferences, and at intimate gigs and small, unusual venues. (He’s even played Glastonbury!)
Will was also invited to present a talk at TedX TulsaCC in April 2017. Here Will delivered an emotional talk about Guthrie’s development from a childhood in which he was programmed to be racist, to becoming a civil rights advocate. The talk, Woody Guthrie and the Art of Making Good, was interspersed with music that further illustrated the life and impact of the songwriter.
Woody Guthrie and “Old Man Trump”
While Guthrie had a relatively short career and a short life (he succumbed to Huntington’s Disease in 1967 at the age of 55), he wrote over 3,000 songs. A prolific writer, his legacy also includes numerous notebooks, novels and essays. It was while working through these writings at the Woody Guthrie Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that Will discovered an unlikely connection between Woody Guthrie and Donald Trump.
It turned out that in 1950, Guthrie signed a two-year tenancy in a building owned and managed by the American president’s father, Fred C. Trump. Guthrie soon discovered that Trump’s Beach Haven was a de facto “White Only” complex where racial diversity and was not welcome, and he set out to condemn this – in notebooks, essays, letters and song lyrics:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his eighteen hundred family project
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is like heaven
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
When Will published his findings on the website The Conversation, about ten months before the US presidential election, his article went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people engaged with his research, discussing Guthrie and his relevance to current American politics.
A few months later, riot folk singer Ryan Harvey, Ani DiFranco and Tom Morello collaborated to finish and produce the song “Old Man Trump,” put together from the various sources that Will had unearthed. Morello introduced the song in a video and called on viewers to stand up to the “Old Man Trump” of 2016 – a call that still resonates today in the anti-Trump “Resist!” movement.
Will’s discovery certainly brought his research to life and to the masses, demonstrating the ongoing relevance of Woody Guthrie in these politically tempestuous times.
In March of 2018 Will was invited to deliver the prestigious Matthew Caygill Memorial Lecture at Leeds Beckett University on the topic of Woody Guthrie and “Old Man Trump.” He has expanded that lecture into a full-scale 90-minute music and spoken-word presentation, to premiered at the celebrated London music venue the Green Note.
In addition to combining scholarship with performance, Will continues to edit the Woody Guthrie Annual, an online open-access journal that he founded in 2015.
As an American abroad at a time when the USA dominates the news headlines in a very troubling light, Will looks for an alternative American voice to broadcast – a voice of “the other America”. To him, Woody Guthrie has always been that voice; but he knows that there have been thousands of alternative American voices, most of them unknown and unheard through the centuries.
So he is now at work on a book with the working title Before Woody Guthrie, exploring protest song in America from the 1600s to 1940, when Guthrie first appeared on the national scene.