Interview: Will Kaufman | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Will Kaufman is Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Central Lancashire. He is also widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on Woody Guthrie and has written three books on him Woody Guthrie, American Radical (2011), Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues (2017), and Mapping Woody Guthrie (2019). He is also a singer and multi-instrumentalist who has performed extensively throughout the USA and Europe presenting what he describes are ‘live documentaries’ based on Woody Guthrie’s life and times.

Will brings his latest documentary, Woody Guthrie and Old man Trump to City Theatre on Sunday 13th October as part of Durham Book Festival. It tells the story of Guthrie’s battles against his racist Brooklyn landlord, Fred C. Trump who just so happens to be the father of the current US president. We chat with the Will to find out more about the great man (Guthrie not Trump).

What was it that drew you to Woody Guthrie and his music?
It’s funny – in the States, we all grew up singing “This Land Is Your Land” in school, probably not even thinking much about what the lyrics meant (the patriotic ones that made it into the school songbooks, I mean – they never seemed to include the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian verses that Woody also wrote into the song. I wonder why they left those out!) So, I’ve known about Woody since childhood …

But I didn’t really start thinking about him seriously until I was a grown man, living abroad here in England, being disgusted and embarrassed by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton – all those belligerent loudmouths stomping around the world in the immediate wake of 9/11, proclaiming that THIS is what it means to be American. I thought, well, there’s another America – an America that wants to be a part of the wider world, not in charge of it; an America that looks after its people, no matter where they came from or how little money they might have – and that’s Woody Guthrie’s America. Woody is the voice of that “other America.” And when I realised that, I couldn’t stop singing about him or talking or writing about him.

How influential has Woody Gutherie been on American culture and music in general?
I think his importance and his influence can’t be overstated. It’s been a particularly generational influence; what I mean by that is, each successive generation seems to pick up on Woody and reacquaint themselves with him, because he seems to have something to say about the life and times of each generation. You know, while he was still alive, wasting away in hospital under the death sentence of Huntington’s disease, the (then) younger folks like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton – they all took up the torch and kept his words alive. They were called “Woody’s Children.” Then, the next generation took over – Joe Strummer, Springsteen, Billy Bragg. They’re like “Woody’s Grandchildren.” His great-grandchildren? I think they’re out there somewhere now, maybe singing on picket lines, Extinction Rebellion marches and rallies …

What’s your favourite story about Woody Guthrie?
I don’t have a favourite story about him, but I suppose what I like about him the most was his expansiveness as an artist and as a thinker. I wrote a book called Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues, which looks at how far-reaching and engaged an artist he was, in the midst of this complex modern world. He was a songwriter, a singer, a painter, a sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a cosmopolitan – he was extremely well-read and sophisticated … but he was able to convince the world that he was just a poor unlettered boy from Oklahoma with his ear to the ground.

Your new live documentary, Woody Guthrie and Old Man Trump tells the story of Guthrie’s battles against his racist Brooklyn landlord who happens to be Donald Trump’s dad. Did the current political climate inspire this and could any parallels be drawn with what’s going on in America currently?
Woody Guthrie and Old Man Trump is based on in my latest book, Mapping Woody Guthrie (as well as the previous one, Modern World Blues) and both books are directly inspired by the current political climate in America. I unearthed Woody’s archival writings about his racist landlord, Fred Trump, a year or so before Donald Trump declared his candidacy. At that time, it was nothing more than a curiosity to me – you know, “Huh, look at that. Woody’s landlord was that Apprentice guy’s father.” I didn’t think much about it at first. But then, when Donald announced that he was running for president, and proclaiming “My legacy is my father’s legacy,” I remembered that Woody Guthrie had a lot to say about that very legacy – a legacy of corruption and race-hatred. Turns out he was right, and is letting us know from 60 years beyond the grave.

What do you think Guthrie would think of modern-day America?
I think he’d respond to modern-day America the same way he responded to the America of his day – with a mixture of disgust and hope. Trump’s acolytes want to “Make America Great Again” – but Woody’s America wasn’t all that “great,” considering what was going on during his lifetime. He grappled with the Depression, Jim Crow segregation and lynching, fascism (both home-grown and foreign), the threat of nuclear annihilation, American militarism, McCarthyism and other manifestations of American tyranny … but through it all, he never lost hope and he tried to find (and sing about) the best in the people he cared about. He called himself a “hoping machine.” And God knows we need some hope right now.

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