Revamping Woody: Author Kaufman wants to renovate Guthrie’s legacy

This afternoon at New Dominion Bookshop,  the professor and author Will Kaufman proved that one of America’s favorite sons was more of a black sheep than a golden boy. Kaufman was in town to promote his latest book, Woody Guthrie, American Radical, but this wasn’t your normal reading.

Kaufman presented what he calls an “interactive documentary” on the development of Woody Guthrie’s political awareness, a talk and slideshow peppered with live performances of Guthrie tunes. Here he is doing “Vigilante Man,” a famous Guthrie tune about the thugs that would break up the pro-labor demonstrations in California during the Dust Bowl.

For the book, Kaufman charted Guthrie’s life from disaffected Okie to famed folk singer, grounding his best known work in the social and political landscape of the ’30s and ’40s. Recently, we sat down with this-card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World for a remedial Guthrie lesson, and learned the verses to “This Land Is Your Land” that they didn’t teach us in school.

You’ve been bringing Woody’s music and life story to audiences in Europe for years now. What brought you to Guthrie?

I never really thought politically about Woody Guthrie until long after I moved to England. I walked into a pub sometime in the 1990s, and they were playing this Woody Guthrie song “Vigilante Man,” a slide guitar version, which was unbelievable. Woody didn’t’ write like a Mississippi Delta musician, but what Ry Cooder did on this cover was take a song for a poor white Dust Bowl constituency and apply it to the Delta, and it got me thinking about how politically adept and malleable Guthrie songs are.

But I didn’t start playing him until around 2006. You have to picture how difficult it is to be an American abroad during the reign of George W. Bush, when he and his other despicable, rich, oil-hungry friends are speaking for America. I was so sickened and embarrassed by them that I was casting about desperately for an alternative American voice. I began to think that Woody Guthrie sounded pretty good around then.

Your presentation of Guthrie’s life and music is doubling as a book tour for Woody Guthrie, American Radical, the first political biography of Guthrie. Does our image of him need revising?

Nowadays, he has the public image of a hokie rube, a sort of cracker-barrel philosopher, when in reality he was much more politically sophisticated than we’re aware of. He was a small-c communist—there’s no evidence that he ever signed a membership card—but he was certainly committed to establishing a socialist economy in the United States.

In 2009, when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang “This Land Is Your Land” at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert, they sang the full version, and the next day the newspapers were saying, “did you know what this song is really about?” There are actually three killer anti-capitalist verses in that song.

During the Great Depression, Woody’s anger at the treatment of workers and the squalor of immigrant life culminated in the writing of “This Land Is Your Land,” which is a protest anthem, not the patriotic tub-thumper that you and I sang in school. One of Woody’s friends, a radical editor named Irwin Silber, once said that they took a revolutionary and turned him into a conservationist. Which is exactly what happened. I’m trying to reverse that.

It seems like British audiences often get into our protest musicians before we’re ready to hear what they have to say.

It often goes that way. The problem in Woody’s case is that his radical propensities have been airbrushed out. He gets construed as celebratory and patriotic, because people aren’t ready to engage with the more radical, left-wing dimension of one of their favorite sons. I think that kind of paranoia is the legacy of McCarthyism in American culture. In our popular consciousness, Woody Guthrie couldn’t have had ties to American communism, because we pretend that there’s never been such a thing. Europeans don’t get paranoid about that.

In your presentations, you play Guthrie songs pretty much as they were. What do you think about Mermaid Avenue, where Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote music for Guthrie’s unfinished songs, and other modern interpretations?

I like the Mermaid Avenue albums. I think Billy Bragg was a great choice, but I wasn’t so sure about Wilco, because they never struck me as particularly politically committed. But Nora Guthrie has done a great job of dragging [Guthrie] out of the Dust Bowl, bringing contemporary musicians into his archives. There are about 3000 songs in there just waiting to be put to music. Woody didn’t really write music. He just used the folk song as a template for the words he wrote down.

A lot gets made about Guthrie symbolically passing the mantle on to a young Dylan. Is his cultural legacy still around today?

Yes, Dylan did visit Woody and play Woody’s songs for him, but the connection is mostly mythology. The missing link there is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was Woody’s protege, and helped teach Dylan what he knew.

It would be right to call Woody a father of the protest song. He wasn’t the first to do it, but he really brought it to the fore. If you wanted to talk about Woody’s legacy, I could point you to Tom Morello or Ani DiFranco, but he’s a dinosaur, and I guess she’s on the way to becoming one.

David Rovics, out of Portland, Oregon, is one of the younger people channeling Woody’s spirit. They’re out there, but not on the major labels. They’re releasing tunes on the internet. They’re out in the picket lines.

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