Behind the Music
By Phil Reser
Arlo Guthrie Brings New Meaning to Folk Music
Arlo Guthrie is the son of famed folk singer/songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie, and is best known for his 1967 talking blues epic “Alice’s Restaurant” along with his Top 40 hit “The City of New Orleans.”
The Guthrie house was always full of music, and he grew up surrounded by the musical influences of not only his famous father, but frequent guests such as Cisco Houston, Bob Dylan and Leadbelly. He was playing harmonica by age 3, and by 6 had learned the fundamentals of the guitar. He naturally turned to music as a career.
“I never believed I would end up playing music for a living,” says Guthrie. “I was brought up when normal people went to work having a real job, and played music with friends on weekends. But, now there’s not enough real work to go around, so I’m happy to be giving up that job to someone else.”
Arlo has carried his father’s legacy along a straight and narrow path, keeping ripe the elder Guthrie’s spirited integrity while satirizing or poking fun at unbridled authority.
He came into his own when he took part in the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival and released “Alice’s Restaurant,” an anti-war, anti-draft song that had its roots in a real-life event. In the song, Guthrie is called up for a draft exam and is rejected for military service because of a single arrest for littering.
The song, which began as a underground hit, eventually sold over $1 million worth of records. It first became popular on New York City radio station WBAI, where Guthrie performed it in the spring of 1967. The station was swamped with listener requests for the song, and it soon caught on with other disc jockeys.
That summer, he performed the song at the Newport Folk Festival, and in the fall his hit album, “Arlo Guthrie,” was released.
Nearly every year since that recording, Arlo has laid down tracks on a long list of memorable albums like “Washington County,” “Hobo’s Lullaby” and his highly acclaimed “Amigo.”
In 1972, he recorded his version of the Steve Goldman song, “City of New Orleans.”
From the late 1970s onward, he performed concerts and recorded with his band Shenandoah, frequently touring with Pete Seeger.
“You don’t get to meet many masters in life, and I am forever grateful for the years I spent working with Pete. I learned from him that you can’t explain what you’ve learned. You can only experience it. Both my dad and Pete believed that songs that are handed down generation to generation, what we now call folk songs, are a very potent part of understanding our own history. Who we are, what has happened to us and what our hopes and dreams are. Pete and Woody were all about trying to be a chronicler or a journalist of the times and add to the wealth of history that has been handed down in song for many
Arlo’s son Abe, his daughter Sarah Lee and his son-in-law Johnny Irion play in his band, extending the family’s musical legacy to a new generation.
“I didn’t nurture my kids to play music,” he says, “but somehow they all ended up doing gigs, writing songs and creating CDs. It’s more like an infectious disease that just keeps returning generation after generation.”
In 1983, he left the major record label system to pursue a life as a truly independent artist. He brought his thriving career into the hands of a family-run business with the launch of his own label, Rising Son Records.
In 1991 he purchased the church in Stockbridge, Mass., that fans had come to know as Alice’s Restaurant and converted it to the Guthrie Center.
“I had a history with that building and I thought that would be a great place to continue the spirit of my dad’s and my mom’s work in terms of providing a place for people to get together to talk about things in the world and to sing songs. We asked all of our friends and fans and neighbors to chip in, and we were able to put a down payment on the place. So far it’s been morphing into something different every year. There’s children’s shows going on, yoga classes and free lunches. A very wide range of things that interest me, all of which stem from some of the ideas and some of the philosophies that my mom and dad passed on to me.”
April 12, Laxson Auditorium at Chico State University
April 14, Cascade Theatre in Redding