Arlo Guthrie tells a story of coming into the kitchen one night as a child to find his father, folk icon Woody Guthrie, sleeping on the floor. When asked about it, the elder Guthrie explained to his son that he just couldn’t sleep in the bed, “because then I might not leave.” It offers great insight into how seriously the author of “This Land is Our Land” viewed his role as a spokesman for the people.
“In order to do what he had to do and be who he had to be, he didn’t want to get too tied down. He wanted to be able to pick up and go at a moment’s notice without letting anyone know,” says the 66-year-old Arlo Guthrie, with a pause and a sigh. “Normally, a person would say, ‘Hey I’m going down to the store, I’ll be right back.’ Not that anybody’s asking, it’s just the way you do things. He didn’t do that. And he didn’t do it on purpose. It wasn’t the way he was. It was the way he made himself to be in order to be himself.”
Though Arlo’s mother eventually divorced his father and remarried, Woody cast a shadow across his son’s life in ways the younger Guthrie would only grow to understand. Other things he knew on a more innate level. Today, Guthrie says that he realizes that much of what his father was singing about was the freedom to be one’s self. That’s part of why Arlo initially didn’t believe he would be a performer.
“For me to imitate him would be silly. To be yourself you have to figure out who that is. You don’t just decide to do it. It takes a lot of work, and you have to bat it around for a while, kick the tires and see what happens,” Guthrie says.
Initially, Guthrie planned to be a forest ranger, but he dropped out of Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont. after six weeks. He returned to his home state of Massachusetts, where he stayed at the home of two former teachers, Alice and Ray Brock, who’d opened a restaurant. A year later he started performing in Cambridge, though truth be told, he really only had a couple songs, one of which served as the platform for Arlo’s ambling life story/comedy routine, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
That 23-minute-long song helped define the then-20-year-old Guthrie as an entity distinct from his famous father, and it gave him immediate cred with a music-hungry counter-culture. In the process he inaugurated a whole new style of musical storytelling, though he says that style wasn’t very well-received early on.
“I would get up on stage and be singing some of my dad’s songs, and then I’d get into these rambling tales and people in the audience would shout, ‘Shut up and sing.’ Nobody got up on a stage that wasn’t singing song after song,” recalls Guthrie. Years later, fans had the opposite reaction when he cut back on the chatter and focused on singing.
The irony of it all is that Arlo was not as unique as he thought. This realization only came a few years ago when someone contacted his sister Nora Guthrie, who maintains the Woody Guthrie archives, saying he had a live recording of a Woody Guthrie performance. No such recordings had been thought to exist, only studio recordings.
“I always wondered, ‘What is it about my dad that is making him popular?’ It’s not how he’s singing. The guy can hardly carry a tune. He’s not a good picker. The guitar is out of tune, and it’s speeding up or slowing down depending on how much whiskey they just had,” says Arlo.
Then he heard the tape. His mother is introducing Woody as he performs in a hoity-toity setting. (His mother Marjorie Guthrie had been a dancer with Martha Graham’s company.) Yet to their mother’s consternation, Woody keeps going rogue and extending the songs.
“He’d go into this rambling tale that starts in one place and seemingly goes nowhere until he turns it this way or that,” Arlo says. “A good while later in the album she says, ‘You’ll now hear Woody Guthrie very briefly say a few words,’ and he’s of course just laughing at this. He’s not going to be under her control … My sister looks at me with tears in her eyes as we’re listening to this for the first time. Hearing these tales that go on for like 15 minutes, she says, ‘Oh my God, I thought you invented that,’ and I’m like, ‘I thought I invented that too!'”
Though he will forever be connected to his father and “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie has had a surprisingly full career. His song “Coming into Los Angeles” was a centerpiece of the Woodstock movie and its soundtrack. Later he scored a Top 40 hit with Steve Goodman’s tune, “The City of New Orleans.”
Along the way Guthrie has released a lot of really good, largely undiscovered music. Those inclined are encouraged to check out 2007’s In Times Like These. Guthrie revisits some of his finest songs with the University of Kentucky Symphony, putting the focus on his lyrical rather than prosaic gifts.
“It’s probably one of the best albums I ever made,” he says. “When we recorded it live, there was much more of me engaging the audience, but the problem with talking on records is it’s not like a song. You get where you skip it because you’ve heard it a million times and that’s kind of hard to do, so we edited that all out and just put the songs out there.”
These days Guthrie is happy for a career that has provided for himself and his family, many of whom have gone into music themselves. For him, it’s simply about living for the present.
“It’s not about embracing the moment. It’s being aware and understanding that’s all you really have anyhow. That’s not just a philosophy. That’s practical reality as far as I’m concerned,” Guthrie says. “You have to make yourself happy, find something to be happy about, find something to be friendly about. That’s what’s important.”
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