Songs from the past for the present
Protest songs about job losses, corporate greed and social injustice, with a healthy dollop of anti-banker sentiment, will provide an extremely topical subject matter for one of this weekend’s Wordplay Festival shows.
New York-born, UK-based academic, singer and multi-instrumentalist Will Kaufman will bring his “live documentary” Hard Times and Hard Travellin’ to these shores tomorrow lunchtime. His performance may concern a bygone era and the work of much-fêted folk singer Woody Guthrie, but the themes in question have an unquestionable contemporary relevance.
Kaufman told The Shetland Times: “Often when I sing some of the songs, I see people nodding their heads when bankers are referenced, greedy landlords are referenced … The more things change, the more they stay the same and history does have a habit of showing up in repeat performances.”
He has performed the show at a range of events and festivals, including Glastonbury. It sees Kaufman offering renditions of a host of Guthrie-penned numbers including This Land Is Your Land, Pretty Boy Floyd and All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose, along with other related traditional protest songs.
Forming part of a 90-minute presentation, the live performances on guitar, banjo and fiddle are augmented by contemporary photos and posters designed to transport the audience all the way back to the 1930s America.
It takes in the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl (when storms blew away the topsoil which had fed and employed farmers in the southern plains, forcing many to emigrate to California and other states, as observed in the work of author John Steinbeck) and US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The documentary, he says, is a great way of bringing his academic research to a wider audience and making it “much more interesting for all concerned”, not least himself: “I still have my day job, admin and teaching, but to be able to marry my research, my academic interests, with playing music, it is a dream job.”
It was during the second Bush administration in 2006 that Kaufman – who is professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire – was inspired to “broadcast an alternative voice from another America, and it was Woody’s voice that came to me”.
Guthrie, he says, is a “foundational” figure in the proud tradition of protest music who directly inspired early Bob Dylan and whose influence is also apparent in the work of figures including Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan and David Rovics.
“He stands on the shoulders of giants – there were people like Joe Hill and other anonymous writers with the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] – but I think Guthrie was there at the right time and he had the right ear, the right voice to capture the stories of many anonymous people,” says Kaufman.
“He set the template for much of the personalising of protest issues, he put a real human face onto so much of it and he reminded everybody that these were not just figures, ciphers, but people with real stories that he was singing about.
“There’s his identification with the union struggles, organised labour, his feistiness – that combination of protest, but also compassion and empathy – his heart was always in the right place, although he could be a difficult and certainly flawed individual. He was someone to inspire, particularly for an American abroad during the Bush years.”
Will’s brother Steve Kaufman, a well-known bluegrass guitarist, has previously visited Shetland to perform at the folk festival in 2000 and then at the inaugural Peerie Willie Guitar Festival five years ago.
After his appearance in Lerwick tomorrow, Kaufman is taking his show to the US for a month with the backing of his university. Next year he will release Woody Guthrie, American Radical, a political biography based on unseen archive sources which he promises will reveal “a completely new Woody Guthrie that no-one has seen before”.
? Will Kaufman will be performing The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie in Room 16 at Islesburgh at 1.45pm tomorrow, with tickets priced £5 or £3.50 for concessions.