Jackson Crawford’s unique academic, YouTube worlds collide, with felicitous results
When Jackson Crawford came to the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017 to take up the reins as coordinator of the Nordic Program in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, it felt like a homecoming in many ways.
First, having spent much of his childhood living in the mountains at the upper end of nearby Clear Creek Canyon, teaching at CU Boulder was “the closest I could ever get to home,” says Crawford, 33.
On top of that, Boulder quickly proved more welcoming of Crawford’s unique personal style, academic approach and external activities than the communities at the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA, his two previous postings. Boulder isn’t exactly the Wild West, but it’s not hard to see why it suits Crawford.
After all, he’s a competitive pistol shooter who spends much of his free time roaming the wilds of Wyoming. And he has thousands of followers on YouTube, where he regales followers with tales of Nordic heroes in a dulcet baritone (and sometimes, grave Old Norse that sounds like the language of the gods) while wearing a cowboy hat and boots against stunning Western backdrops. Of late, he’s expanded his repertoire to include other topics that interest him, whether it’s ravens, his favorite poet, Robinson Jeffers, or advice on publishing a book.
Though he claims no significant Scandinavian ancestry himself, Jackson Crawford is surely the world’s top cowboy-Viking-academic.
As a teenager, Crawford lived on his grandparents’ land near Blackhawk, where his grandfather “nurtured in me this deep love of the West, as a geography and a way of life.”
His fascination with Old Norse sagas began in eighth grade, when he read the Hávamál—which translates roughly to “Words of the High One” or “Words of the One-Eyed,” referring to the Norse god Odin—which Crawford describes a “Norse equivalent of the Book of Proverbs.”
Not exactly common fare for the average American middle schooler.
“I guess I was a pretty weird kid,” Crawford says. “We moved around a lot. I wasn’t too popular, a little socially awkward. I was a big reader. I played Dungeons & Dragons.”
He earned a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on Scandinavian languages, especially Old Norse.
His first two books, The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Hackett, 2015) and The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Hackett, 2017) are translations of 800-year-old Icelandic sagas from Old Norse.
“I was interested in them as the forgotten sisters of English. They were very close, then developed differently for about a thousand years,” he says. “And Old Norse certainly provides the most interesting stuff to read.”
Viking cultures and stories of the wild west both portray self-reliance, a certain grit and a fatalistic sense of humor."
There may be considerable distance—in time, geography and style—between ancient Iceland and the American West, but Crawford detects many cultural parallels.
“Viking cultures and stories of the wild west both portray self-reliance, a certain grit and a fatalistic sense of humor,” he says.
Crawford has even written and created videos about what he calls, “The Cowboy Hávamál,” a condensation of the first part of the Old Norse text rendered in a Western American dialect.
“The voice is that of my grandfather,” he writes, “sad with wisdom and cynical with experience, which I have always heard when reading this poem in the original.”
Crawford decided to start the YouTube channel two years ago as a way to supplement his adjunct academic’s income while using his skills to educate the public. Despite the popularity of Viking and Norse culture, much of the information he found online was poorly sourced or simply wrong. His shot his first videos in Berkeley in front of a whiteboard, but soon discovered that his occasional ventures outside drew a larger audience.
“When I moved back to the Rockies, I moved them all outside. That’s been a big plus. My social media life gives me a good excuse to go out to all my favorite places in the mountains,” he says, especially the Wind River and Bighorn ranges of Wyoming and the central Colorado Rockies, which swallow the sun each evening.
Such an esoteric mashup of Nordic nerd-ism and rugged Western ideals doesn’t exactly scream “mass audience.” Yet the YouTube channel Crawford created two years ago now boasts 67,000 subscribers and he has cultivated more than 900 Patreon supporters.
His videos have become a major channel for public service and outreach, but many of his California colleagues seemed to disdain his online avocation.
“Some of my peers looked down on (the YouTube work) because it wasn’t in the ivory tower,” Crawford says. “The department here (at CU Boulder) is much more interested. Both department chairs have actively promoted it and speak of it highly.”
Of course, he doesn’t get to spend all his time making videos. Crawford teaches a full load and continues to work on his research. He recently recorded an audio edition of his first book and his next two books, translations of The Saga of Hrolf Kraki with the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek and The Prose Edda, are slated for publication.
And despite the naysayers, it turns out his seemingly disparate worlds—academic and YouTube—have begun to cross-pollinate. YouTube is largely responsible for the fact that his second book has already gone through six printings and put his translation of the Poetic Edda atop Amazon’s European history bestseller list.
“I’m reaching a lot more people through YouTube than I would otherwise,” he says. “Any given video I make is probably seen by more people than anything I’ve ever published, and some of them are buying the books.”