The Carter Family. The Cashes. The Seegers. The Guthries. There are names in American music that truly are dynastic. Within American folk and protest music, The Guthrie family have come to embody some of the most profound American experiences in the 20th and 21st centuries. The son of Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”) and Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, who was a professional dancer with Martha Graham, Arlo Guthrie is America’s troubadour. On Wednesday, January 30, he is bringing half a century of music to the Wilson Center as part of the “Alice’s Restaurant—Back By Popular Demand Tour.”
It almost is hard to wrap my mind around the idea “Alice’s Restaurant” is 50 years old—the 1969 film is based very loosely upon Guthrie’s song by the same name. Arthur Penn’s film depicted and enlarged the events of 1965, when a young Guthrie and his compatriot, Richard Robbins, were busted for littering. The resulting charges made Guthrie ineligible for the draft. The song, which includes a pretty lengthy monologue in the middle, clocks in at over 18 minutes. Most deemed it unacceptable for radio airplay; however, it is a Thanksgiving staple for radio stations across the country.
For many people it became the perfect reflection of the absurdity and uncertainty invoked upon living with the Sword of Damocles, known as The Draft. As a document of the counter-culture, the song and resulting film are iconic. But Guthrie is much more than just a living touchstone of the ‘60s or Woodstock (you will see him in the Pennebaker documentary of the festival, arriving by helicopter). In addition to fostering and continuing a musical tradition that is part of the fabric of our culture, he produced a body of work that will leave a mark on future generations.
On this tour his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, who is an accomplished singer-songwriter (“Go Waggaloo”), opens the shows. Guthrie’s touring band includes his son, Abe, drummer Terry “A La Berry” Hall, and the return of Steve and Carol Ide, who fans will remember from Shenandoah—the band Guthrie toured with from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘90s.
Guthrie was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for encore.
encore (e): So, this may seem far-fetched, but nothing ventured nothing gained: Noting your mother’s work with the preservation of the Yiddish language, do you have any plans to write and/or record a song in Yiddish?
Arlo Guthrie (AG): It actually was my maternal grandmother who did so much to keep the old language alive. Aliza Greenblatt (who we called “Bubbie”) wrote her songs and poetry in Yiddish, and only a small fraction has been translated to English. She also wrote a number of books, including an autobiography. Although I heard it spoken around the house (usually to keep us kids from understanding), I never spoke or sang in Yiddish. At this point it’s not one of the things I’ll likely get around to doing.
e: One assumes there have been changes to each your vocal work and musicianship. What is it like to tour with Steve and Carol Ide again? Did it feel like putting on a comfortable pair of gloves, or was it completely out of kilter? Biggest surprise?
AG: At some point [during our time in Shenandoah—which] also included Terry A La Berry, who has worked with me since 1975, and continues to be our percussionist—Steve and Carol had kids that needed to go to school. So they left the road to raise their family. Now, their kids are grown with kids of their own, and they’ve retired from the jobs they held during those years.
When they came back, it was as though they’d never left. They picked up the music and vocals as if they’d only been off the road for a few days instead of years. It’s great having them on the road again. At this point, the band and crew are more like family. Almost everyone in our touring company has been with me for a very long time.
e: Has touring with them changed your set list? Are there songs you are bringing back from that era? “Groundhog Song” or “Ruben Clamzo” leaps to mind…
AG: When we did those songs decades ago, we had six vocalists to work with (including my own), so the harmonies we were able to produce live on stage were astounding. We had the best vocal arrangements of any touring band (except maybe The Beach Boys). There’s no way to recreate that sound without the band members who did it originally. So, I don’t go there. It’s a good thing we recorded it then, so we can still enjoy it, but we can’t do it live.
e: “Alice’s Restaurant” has become famous as an anti-war or an anti-establishment or anti-stupidity song (or all three). Your career has been linked to causes and political commentary at many times. Given our recent political stalemate, what song do you wish you and Pete Seeger could sing with federal workers right now? (And, yes, I fully recognize the irony of this question.)
AG: I’ve always thought “Alice’s Restaurant” was a good anti-authoritarian song. We were questioning authority because the authorities were being stupid. It happens whether those in positions of authority are left or right, so it’s not a political or cultural thing. People in authority always need to be viewed suspiciously, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always thought a sense of humor is the best way to deal with people who take themselves too seriously.
Pete and I both believed the power of songs were an essential part of nurturing the community of average everyday people. It’s not so much which songs you sing, but how you feel about joining in, using your own voice to create the chorus of everyday people.
e: You spend the majority of your year on the road. Since you see so much of America and the world through your travels, what observations from the last two years stand out for you?
AG: I’ve come to think most everyday people are too busy with their own individual lives to give much thought to participating in group think. Frankly, I like that. Having said as much, there are special occasions when, from time to time, we feel the call to work together. History is important. If Native Americans had been able to put aside their own differences and work together, they wouldn’t have had the immigration problems they ended up with. But they were not able to overcome their differences.
The lesson here is we, just like them, are less likely to maintain our way of life if we continue to be fighting among ourselves. That’s my take anyway.
e: Since this is the Alice’s Restaurant Tour, is it strange to look at it 50 years later? Has it changed for you over the years—do you bring something new to the song now that you didn’t then?
AG: I’ve had to update a few things, but not much. “Alice’s Restaurant” is still the same in most ways. We laughingly refer to it as “the same old garbage.”