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Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travelin’

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Woody Guthrie
Will Kaufman: Musical Performance, Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University, Friday 31st January 2014

“I was walking along Oxford Road, carrying my guitar,” exclaimed Will Kaufman, as he donned the guitar in question, “When I saw a group of kids walking towards me, who shouted ‘Oi! Llewyn Davis!’”

This opening joke set the tone for the morning. Will Kaufman, Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Central Lancashire, visited Manchester Metropolitan University for a musical performance tribute to Woody Guthrie. He told the story of the famous anti-capitalist Folk singer’s migration from his home-town Okemah, Oklahoma, to his final place of residence in New York City. But what exactly spurred Guthrie’s interest in speaking out against the government?
It began around the time the ‘Dust Bowl’ blighted various states in America. The period came around by the oil mining, which took place very prominently in Guthrie’s home-town. Subsequently, Okemah went through a short economic boom and attracted oil contractors to the area. This resulted in various businesses prospering, that is, until the oil began to run out. As a consequence of the oil mining in the area, large clouds of dust spread due to the poor treatment of the land in various towns across the country. These clouds spread as far as Washington D.C. and New York City. This, paired with The Wall Street Crash, spelled the beginning of The Great Depression. Above all, Woody Guthrie spoke on behalf of the destitute masses; the labourers who earned less than wealthy citizens of the United States.

But this was no regular history lesson. Small chapters of Woody Guthrie’s life were narrated in detail by Kaufman and paired with renditions of various songs composed by him, making this musical tribute no ordinary one. Kaufman is more than a public speaker; his comedic and entertaining accounts of Guthrie’s endeavours against the government were made far more memorable by his witty, dry sense of humour. He is a comedian, musician, impressionist and scholar all compressed into one thoroughly interesting package. Most importantly, he successfully portrayed Guthrie as the important political activist he was, expanding on his individual views, where his travels took him, his methods of getting his messages across, and his impact on modern society. 

Closing the performance, there was a short session in which audience members could ask questions based on Woody Guthrie’s life, which led to a short discussion based around the singer’s views on racism and the Native American population, in relation to Guthrie’s take on Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’. This turned the original patriotic meaning of the song on its head and related it to the plight of America’s working-class population. Kaufman explained that, in response to this, Guthrie would have explained that the point of the song was to include all of the residents of America in its message, and believed everyone had the right to live in the country. 
Kaufman’s performance was very well received, and was mostly made successful by his witty and interesting delivery of the life of an important figure during the era of The Great Depression, how he inspired an entire class of people, and his impact on modern society. The morning was made more entertaining by his natural showmanship and his level of musical talent.
Frazer MacDonald is an aspiring screenwriter/actor, and has recently developed an interest in Journalism. He is studying English and Creative Writing at MMU, and is an avid film fan.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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