The contemporary political and cultural relevance of Woody Guthrie's music and writings
Much of Professor Will Kaufman’s research has focused on the political and social dimensions of US balladeer Woody Guthrie’s writing. His research practice has revolved around the use of archival materials to understand Guthrie’s activism, his relation to modernity, and the impact of time and place on his consciousness.
Kaufman's research into Woody Guthrie began in 2008 with the first of his two BMI-Woody Guthrie Fellowships. These fellowships enabled Kaufman to conduct research into Guthrie’s unpublished writings - notebooks, letters, song lyrics, prose manuscripts - housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Three books have emerged from this research: Woody Guthrie, American Radical (Illinois UP, 2011), Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues (Oklahoma UP, 2017) and Mapping Woody Guthrie (Oklahoma UP, 2019). In 2014, while on his second trip to the archives, Kaufman discovered previously unseen writings, letters and song lyrics by Guthrie criticising the racist housing policies of his Brooklyn landlord, Fred C. Trump in the 1950s.
These lyrics took on a new significance in 2015, when Trump’s son Donald announced his candidacy for the US presidency. Kaufman realised that, from beyond the grave, Woody Guthrie had something to say about the racist legacy of the Trump empire. After Kaufman published his findings in The Conversation in January 2016, they were frequently referenced in public commentaries during the US presidential election cycles of 2016 and 2020, as well as the mid-term elections of 2018. High-profile musicians such as Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) put the unearthed lyrics to music in recording and performance, igniting new methods of cultural activism, including Kaufman’s own TEDx presentation and his song-and-spoken-word ‘live documentary’, Woody Guthrie and ‘Old Man Trump’. The material also informed television documentaries and biographies of both Guthrie and the Trump Family. Kaufman not only helped to rewrite the history books on Guthrie, but he also helped the Guthrie family themselves understand their own history.
"We were able to move out of our little apartment in Coney Island to this bigger apartment in Beach Haven. Of course, as a little child I didn’t think anything was wrong, and it wasn’t until many years later, when Will Kaufman did the research, that I realised that it was a segregated community."— Nora Guthrie
Kaufman’s research has enabled Guthrie’s lyrics and the Trump empire’s history of racism to become part of a common language to express political arguments in the age of Trump.