Will Kaufman 

Telling the story of Woody Guthrie

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  • Will Kaufman

Author, teacher and musician Will Kaufman grew up with Woody Guthrie records, and his family listened to a steady diet of “Woody’s children”—folkies like Joan Baez. But Kaufman didn’t share his parents’ folk inclinations; he was more into bluegrass.

Later, as a professor at England’s University of Central Lancashire, he “came back to Woody with a vengeance,” with Kaufman using Guthrie’s words to deflect his European friends’ criticisms of post-9/11 America.

“The global hatred for America that the likes of Dick Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld and [George] Bush were inviting with every utterance, you could cut it with a knife,” Kaufman said in an interview with City Weekly. “It was around 2006 that I began to cast about, desperately, for an alternative American voice to broadcast, in whatever meager way I could—the voice of another America. And it was Woody’s voice that I seized on.”

Kaufman toured Europe with a “live musical documentary,” telling Guthrie’s story, playing his songs and showing images of 1930s America that inspired those songs. He won a BMI-Woody Guthrie Fellowship in 2008, which he used to study at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City and write his new book, Woody Guthrie, American Radical.

The fellowship gave Kaufman access to “hundreds of letters and literally thousands of song lyrics,” as well as unpublished essays, novels and plays, drawings and unreleased recordings.

Kaufman found that Guthrie wasn’t necessarily the equal of his public image as “America’s favorite hobo.” In reality, he carefully cultivated his working-class image as an “Okie.” Guthrie’s politics, though, were anything but a sham. “He considered himself a communist, at least with a small ‘c,’” Kaufman said. “To his dying day, he was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, and he was quite explicit about that.”

Toward the end of his life, Guthrie’s radicalism was downplayed by historians and the culture at large in post-McCarthy America.

Kaufman, for one, is trying to re-introduce the radical Guthrie.

“There’s so much myth and build-up that needs to be cut through when it comes to Guthrie—‘national treasure,’ ‘folk icon,’ ‘Dust Bowl troubadour,’ all that stuff,” Kaufman said. “He was a politically committed individual who got profoundly angry at the degradation and injustice he saw all around him, and he tried to fight it the best he could, with the only weapons he had, which were his voice, his guitar, his songs and his energy.”

Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium
210 E. 400 South
Thursday, July 28 , 7 p.m.

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