On Sunday, author and singer Will Kaufman comes ramblin’ into Philly on his “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” book tour. Born in Montclair, N.J., Kaufman has been teaching in the U.K. since 1981 — currently at the University of Central Lancashire. He feels this distance allowed him to explore Guthrie’s politics with a fresh, nuanced perspective.
How is the U.K. perception of Woody Guthrie different?
In some ways, people in the U.K. often know more about Guthrie than Americans do. When I play the fully restored version of ‘This Land is Your Land” — with the three anti-capitalist verses in there — people in the U.S. are really surprised. Like, “I don’t remember singing that in school.” In the U.K. there’s less baggage on the subject.
When and why did Guthrie become a communist?
I don’t think Woody was ever officially a member of the Communist Party. But he certainly was committed to the communist movement. You can call him a communist with a small “c,” I suppose, as many Americans were in the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan went to communist party meetings at that time. It didn’t start to get demonized until the Cold War.
What’s the most common misperception of Guthrie?
Aside from misunderstanding his political activism, there’s a perception that he was unsophisticated — unlettered and unschooled. Actually, he was incredibly well read and very sophisticated. But he worked very hard at building a mythic persona of Woody Guthrie, Country Boy. He spent more time in cities than he ever did in the country.