Voice of America

Talking dust-bowl blues: historian and resolutely amateur musician Will Kaufman hymns the world of Guthrie and Steinbeck

October 16, 2008

Will Kaufman is a talented musician who sings and plays the guitar, banjo and fiddle. But while his brother is one of America's most celebrated bluegrass guitarists, he is more than happy to have chosen a different path.

Just appointed professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, he is a long way from his New Jersey roots, but he has managed to bring a slice of Americana to the north west of England.

He joined Uclan in 1991 after completing a PhD at Aberystwyth University. He brought music with him, in particular that of Woody Guthrie, the American folk musician whose songs catalogue the lives of the working classes in the Great Depression and beyond.

"I grew up in a musical family and a left-wing family, so this music was always around, but I didn't start thinking politically or academically about Woody Guthrie until a couple of years ago," he said.

"What got me thinking was the fact that there is another America out there - not the America we hear about from Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and all those clowns. So I began to get a programme together to broadcast a voice from that other America."

This led him to create a musical lecture entitled Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin', which he has presented at universities and other institutions across Britain and Europe.

"What inspired me was Guthrie's ability to travel with and tell the stories of neglected people, and to fight, through music, for the rights of working people.

"We're all working people now, and Guthrie was out to inspire the working classes - whether you're a professor or a builder, you are in the working class," he said.

Despite his love of music, Professor Kaufman said he was pleased to have chosen academia over the life of a professional musician.

"If I'm teaching John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath I might whip out the guitar and play (songs from) Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads to cement the cross-cultural impact. So I do use music when it's appropriate for teaching other subjects such as history and literature, but I've watched my brother Steve, who is a very well-known bluegrass guitarist back in the States, and I've seen the sort of self-promotion that he's had to engage in, which must sometimes make him feel that the last thing he wants to see is a guitar.

"I never wanted to turn music into a means of paying the rent," said Professor Kaufman. "I love being an amateur in the best sense of the word, and if I can put it to the service of scholarship, that is all the better."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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