No one would deny that Gutenberg is a name with which to conjure. Johannes Gutenberg transformed society with his invention of mechanical printing in the 1440s. Half a millenium later, in 1971, Michael Hart, an American student, wangled himself time on an early mainframe computer, digitised the American Declaration of Independence, and so launched Project Gutenberg, whose continuing aim is to digitise the western literary canon.
Now there’s a third contender for international – well, perhaps local to start with – recognition under the Gutenberg banner: a group of Perthshire musicians who go by the name of The Gutenbergs. Why? I’ll explain.
Ali Mathieson is an English teacher who passionately believes in the importance of introducing readers of all ages, but particularly teenagers, to classic 20th century literature: the novels and short stories of Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Kerouac, Wells and Woolf to name just a few. Ali is not alone in believing that the reason these works endure is that they have something of value to say to us all.
But rather than approaching them in the conventional way, by requiring his students to read them, Ali has retold these stories in the form of songs, for he is also a songwriter, singer and guitarist. The songs are lyrical, funny, touching and thought-provoking. His skill in crafting them is to have retained something of the quality of the original writing, while packaging it in a melodic and accessible style of music that one might loosely describe as country rock. The Gutenbergs is the band (of which I’m a member) that has been rehearsing these beautiful songs over the last couple of years; and perhaps the reason for the name becomes a little clearer now.
The plan is to take the songs and the original works into schools throughout Scotland, though precisely in what way has yet to be determined; it might be in the form of live performance or workshop, it might be in recorded or published form. It’s an ambitious project and there are still hurdles to cross, but at its heart is a passion for fine writing and storytelling, and an imaginative approach to interpretation that will help to introduce a new readership to some of the 20th century’s greatest works of fiction.
If you happen to be in the area, we’re playing tonight (Friday 10th) in Dunkeld at the Royal Hotel, starting 7.30. If not you can hear three demo tracks here. They’re based on stories by William Faulkner, Richard Ford and Iain Crichton Smith. It’s an exciting and original project that’s starting to come together, and I hope to be able to report more in the months to come.