Arlo Guthrie is many things to many people – folk singer, troubadour, photographer, writer, hippie, libertarian, right, left, up, down – and it’s all valid.
The artist son of Woody Guthrie, considered the godfather of protest-oriented folk music and an American icon, has been a fixture of American contemporary music in his own right for more than 50 years.
When Arlo’s somewhat autobiographical tale of avoiding the Vietnam War draft, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” became his first and biggest hit when he was 19 years old – the same year his father died of Huntington’s disease – the torch was passed.
Guthrie appeared at Woodstock in 1969, which helped boost the song “Coming Into Los Angeles” from the album Running Down The Road into a minor hit. And he had another hugely successful single with a cover of Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” in 1972.
He formed a band, Shenandoah, in 1975 and toured with it for many years until the members gradually drifted away. But he’s continued to be a touring force of nature, spending a year and a half commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant” and, after a short break, is back on stages with his “Running Down The Road” outing, with a reformed Shenandoah.
Guthrie has always had a streak, as did his father, for social activism. He still does, and recently performed a concert in North Carolina to benefit that state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in opposition to the so-called “bathroom bill” that was recently lifted.
While on a recent break from the road, Guthrie talked to Pollstar about that, as well as touring, life, freedom of speech, politics in general, and the proper pronunciation of “Los Angeles.” (Spoiler: there is none.)
Fox Tucson Theatre, Tucson, Ariz.
April 2, 2015
Do you take a lot of breaks?
We’re trying to do more of them, especially in the winter because the older I get, the more moisture my voice actually needs to function. When it gets cold, it gets so dry that I’m only really good for three to four weeks. I have to take a break and get a week, at least, near the ocean where I can breathe some salt air and get that going. Then I’m good for about another three weeks.
You did a long tour starting in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant – are you talked to death about that? As a kid my best friend’s big brother had that record and we memorized every word.
It definitely took me a few days to a week to re-learn it in order to get through the 50th anniversary tour that started in January 2015. We did that for a year and a half, and now we’re on a new tour.
But there’s a show coming up in Nashville where they specifically want me to sing “Alice” at the same time we’re doing a show with the Symphony. By that time, it will have gone out of my head! I think that’s the last actual show of the “Running Down The Road” tour, but I’m dreading it because I have to relearn the song again! It doesn’t stay in my head.
But that should be a lot of fun and I am looking forward to it. I have a great musical director, a guy named John Nardolillo, who is the musical director for the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He’s going to fly in, we’ll work with the symphony, and we’ll try to come up with sort of a split bill with some stuff with the orchestra and some stuff with the band. It will be interesting, because I’m going to have to learn a lot of new stuff. Because the stuff with the symphony is scripted, there’s not a lot of spontaneity; you can’t just stop and think of something with an orchestra. It’s a little more difficult for me than it is for others. I like stopping and thinking of stuff!
I see you are traveling with pretty much the original Shenandoah. Is this the first time you’ve toured with the group since 1987?
Oh my gosh, yeah, that’s probably true. It was completely by accident, but it sort of worked out. Back in the late 1980s or ’90s, two of the members – Steve and Carol Ide, who were members at that time, were starting a family. Naturally, when the kids got to school age, it was difficult to bring them on the road so they left. They went into the teaching professions and stuff people do. But now their kids are grown, and they’ve got grandkids.
I called them up, and said, “What are you guys up to?” and they said, “We’re not doing anything. The kids are grown and left.” So I said, “You want to go back on the road?” and they jumped on it. That makes three or four out of the original five members of Shenandoah They joined Shenandoah in the early part of it, not at the very beginning. My drummer, Terry [Ala Berry], has been working with me since 1975.
So no “Hell Freezes Over” for Arlo Guthrie and Shenandoah?
Steve and Carol took a 30-year hiatus and when we went to rehearse, it was like nothing had changed. All of that time just evaporated, and we were back doing what we did. It was really interesting. I didn’t know you could do that. A lot of bands get back together later in life, but breakups are usually when people don’t like each other, things like that, that causes them to separate in the first place. This wasn’t that. This was just life intruding and it was such a pleasure having them come back. There was none of the baggage that a lot of bands have when they do reunion tours and stuff like that.
You recently did shows in North Carolina and donated a portion of the proceeds to the ACLU in support of the LGBT community.
If it was just North Carolina, it would be one thing. But it’s like a disease and it’s spreading. I think it’s not only disgraceful but totally stupid. It’s hard to believe that people can be elected who are stupid. The only explanation is that the people who are electing them are likeminded.
We live in a very polarized time. I get it; I understand it. I even enjoy it. It’s good times for folk singers, that’s for sure. Because folk songs are the original social media. That was the only way that people knew what others were thinkin’ and how others were feelin’ and what others were sayin’ back before we had the world we’re living in today. Songs did that. That’s what the purpose of them was – well, one of the purposes.
So, it’s nice to see that there’s not just an interest now but a continuing interest in those kinds of songs and that kind of material. That kind of social interaction is still as important as it ever was. I get letters all the time saying, “What happened? Where did the protest singers go?” or something like that. I say, “They’re out there. They’re just not making the kind of music you’d listen to!” I don’t listen to it, either, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is there.
Before the internet and streaming music, you had a lot of gatekeeping going on between labels and radio that kept a lot of music inaccessible. It seems now it’s at least easier to find.
There’s two things going on. I find them both sort of historically significant. The first thing is, we are not that removed generationally from the first recordings. It’s only two generations. My father and his buddies were some of the earliest recorders of those kinds of songs. Back when they were kids, they didn’t have recorded music. Or if they did, they didn’t have access to it. They couldn’t hear it; they couldn’t make it.
So when my dad and others got together they put out records of songs that, for the most part, everybody already knew. But recording itself was new. They recorded the songs to document them as well as anything else. Almost all these songs were local in origin. The original local songs that were organic to any region had a number of different features. They would always make fun of the guy in the next region. Or say, “We’re not like those stupid people over the hill.” And it would be humorous, and they would laugh. It would be part of that culture.
When recorded music became national, you couldn’t put those kinds of songs on the radio. You couldn’t make records of them. Because the guys putting them out didn’t want offensive material; because they relied on music financially, it wasn’t a smart investment. So the songs had to be dumbed down so that they weren’t offensive to anyone. And that left a whole category of all different genres of music that was non-recordable. They find the material offensive.
But there’s a world where people were not only demanding access to that material but there were some guys who recorded it. And guys that wrote it. There were people who documented those thoughts and feelings and that sense of humor, whether or not it portrayed some people in some light that we now know was prejudiced. It may have been something they weren’t thinking about at the time. For the same reason that some people don’t want to see Mark Twain books. It’s offensive to some people.
But in order to understand what those times were, you need to deal with the offensiveness that was part of the times. You can’t clean up history to the point that it’s whitewashed and doesn’t mean anything anymore. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that somebody like Trump has got the backing he does. Because people are tired of the PC mentality that goes along with it. That doesn’t mean he’s the best answer to this stuff but it does give an insight of what people are tired of. Because they do want to hear offensive material! They want to be allowed to look into it. I get that, and I’m all for that, too. But that doesn’t mean to use it as an excuse to go out and offend somebody! It just means, the basic healthiness of it, is that you learn that you are different than your ancestors. That the world is evolving and changing. You can’t use that stuff lightly as an excuse to repeat the past.
Fox Tucson Theatre, Tucson, Ariz.
April 2, 2015
The historical and cultural context in which it existed is still important to know.
Not only that, but it proves that we are evolving! If somebody is against things evolving, philosophically, they don’t want you to hear that stuff! But the meaning of life gets lost.
Because you see a lot of the country, and have for many years, why does it seem like we live in completely different alternate universes?
Well, it’s because they are. They’re different, culturally. One of the things I was alluding to earlier: As the world becomes more global, you see a resistance to it in its entirety. People like to be local. People like being different. People enjoy being with their own. If we don’t recognize that as politicians, as salesmen, as business owners – and I’m not all of the above, but I think we lose track of the different reasons that there’s cultures.
We live in a global culture but we have to learn to be bicultural. People have to learn to live in a global culture, but they also need and want to have their own. And when somebody comes along and says that one rule has to apply to everybody, and that pisses everybody off.
It’s like, you can have gun laws and regulations in a city and that makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense in Wyoming. It’s a different world. So the same rules should not apply. There has to be a way of giving more local people their own autonomy and trusting in their sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. But we don’t do that. Too many people on the left and on the right want the whole thing to be the same. And it’s not the same. It’s not going to work in the long run.
We’ve already seen historically that every time somebody tries to include a larger and larger part of the world in their own and make it one, it always fails. It failed in the Soviet Union, which is why we don’t have them anymore. It failed with Rome. We don’t have that anymore; not the empire, anyway. So I think there’s something to be said for local culture and I think we need to recognize those differences instead of talking over each other’s heads as if our solution is best for everybody. It’s not.
In the meantime, how do we make the best of this world?
You have to have a vision that is more inclusive that convinces people that evolution is actually occurring. We are moving in a direction. And that direction is downhill. I mean that metaphorically!
It’s like a river. If you look at a river, there’s no river that goes straight from one end to the other. It bends to the left; it bends to the right. They all wriggle their way through. The only thing the same about it, is they all go downhill. So that’s where we are as a world. That’s where we are as a nation. It’s going to end in the same place. How it gets there, there’s a natural ebb and flow. And when somebody stands up and says I can build it to make it go straight from here to there, don’t trust them. Don’t believe them. It’s B.S. And people say that because they get desperate, when it goes too far one way or too far the other. And they have a sense that they’re losing out.
But the way to help, I think, is to show people that it is proof positive a natural thing. It’s not man made. It’s not the will of one person or group or people or cabal or an organization or some evil empire taking over. It’s the natural ebb and flow of things, and what you need to keep in mind is to keep your hope and spirit and your sense of humor alive and well. Remember as it goes left and right, it also goes downhill. So there is a future for this country. There’s going to be a future for this world. Don’t let the left and the right part of it fool you. Don’t let it sidetrack you. Because if it went straight from one place to the other, that’s when you get nervous. When you have people afraid, that’s what they’ll want. They’ll believe the guy that says, “I can build it.”
Artists will have a role to play in communicating those ideas of evolution.
It’s a natural part of civilization evolution. I’m not talkin’ Darwin here, but how the world moves ahead. We’re doing pretty good. And the more people we include, the better off we’re going to be.
Do you often perform your father’s song “Plane Wreck In Los Gatos?” Some people call it “Deportee.” It seems to have a new relevance.
We’ve got a long history with that song and one of the fun things is that people keep writing me and posting notes on Facebook saying, “You’ve got to write a song” about this or that. So-and-so said this, you have to write a song about that. Generally, what I say is, “Why? It’s the same old crap! We’ve already wrote songs about this stuff! All you have to do is remember ‘em!”
But “Plane Wreck” was, and is, a powerful song. I had to reintroduce it to my set list. I’ve done it so much over the years I thought people would be tired of it. But the truth is, there’s a lot more younger people coming to the shows now than there had been in the past and I wanted to sing some songs that are powerful. About things that are going on now, and that was one of them. I had to make room for it.
It’s relevant today, when we’re talking about walls, to not forget and to humanize people who still do the backbreaking work.
Not only that, but the investigation that a person makes when hearing a song like that, it moves you to look and see what’s going on. You realize that’s not an isolated incident. That was part of a program that was alive at the time that allowed cheap migrant labor to come in from Mexico, work for nothing, and be sent home. Not only an incident, it’s not just a one-off, it’s part of a program that businessmen find profitable.
My grandson sent me a little meme that said something like, ‘There’s no such thing as immigrants taking your job. Some employer is making the decision to hire that guy over this guy.” And the decisions they are making is to pay people less and the real culprits here are not individuals here who are trying to making a living. The real culprits here are exploiting the situation for their own financial advantage.
Until people deal with that, or the government deals with that, stop blaming immigrants for stealing jobs when they can’t. There’s no immigrant that ever stole a job. All there is, is employers that would rather pay an immigrant than pay an immigrant that’s already here. We’ll get through it. It’s just one of those times that you have to pretty much grin and bear it. I have complete faith in most of the American folks. We’ve been through crap before, and we’ll get through this. It comes and goes, I’m tellin’ ya. If it didn’t come at all, we’d be sorry.
Looking down the track list for Running Down the Road, I’m seeing “Coming Into Los Angeles,” and my mind is pronouncing it Los Ange-leez, which I normally don’t.
It’s spelled the first way, and spoken the second way. I’ve had a few of those over the years. But it’s one of the things my dad loved; to play with words and play with the way they were spoken. He wrote very often in dialect, which made it impossible to run his books and his narratives through a spellchecker! Each character in his stories would say the same word differently. Even a word like “can’t.” Some people pronounce it “cain’t” and some people pronounce some other derivative.
But he would spell them out so that when you read them, you could hear the way somebody spoke. And I loved that about my dad and his writing. But it’s impossible to use modern technology to go through his scripts and screenplays like the ones I’ve been working on. It’s impossible! You can’t run a spellchecker on the thing, you can’t check the grammar; you can’t check anything. All you can do is copy and make sure that the person who is reading it can sound out, can hear the words the way people express them. It’s one of the things that we were talking about before when we were talking about local vs. global culture. People like the way they talk! They like the way they misuse words! They enjoy the humor of it; the sound of it. The phrases that you can create from it. And we don’t want to lose that.
The first stop before we start the next tour leg is in Tulsa, Okla., at the museum there, the Woody Guthrie Center. I still love listening to the old guys talk. I love it. We would say they mispronounce. They don’t think so! They think they’re saying those words the way they ought to be said around there, so that way you know where they’re from. I love that. I would hate to see that go away. – Debbie Speer
Newport Folk Festival, Newport, R.I.
August 2, 2009
Catch Arlo Guthrie’s upcoming dates before they go away:
April 17 – Arcata, Calif., John Van Duzer Theatre
April 19 – Edmonds, Wash., Edmonds Center For The Arts
April 20 – Bellingham, Wash., Mount Baker Theatre
April 21 – Kirkland, Wash., Kirkland Performance Center
April 23 – Tacoma, Wash., Broadway Center For The Perf. Arts
April 26 – Bremerton, Wash., Admiral Theatre
April 28 – Victoria, British Columbia, Farquhar Auditorium
April 29 – Duncan, British Columbia, Cowichan Performing Arts Centre
May 2 – Portland, Ore., Revolution Hall
May 13 – Galveston, Texas, Grand Opera House
May 16 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Hudson Performance Hall
May 18 – Kansas City, Mo., Uptown Theater
May 19 – Lincoln, Neb., Rococo Theatre
May 25 – Nashville, Tenn., Schermerhorn Symphony Center
June 2 – Housatonic, Mass., The Church
June 3 – Housatonic, Mass., The Church
June 4 – Housatonic, Mass., The Church
June 17 – Fairfield, Conn., The Warehouse
June 18 – Croton on Hudson, N.Y., Croton Point Park (Clearwater Festival - Great Hudson River Revival)
July 19 – Cape May, N.J., Cape May Convention Center
July 21 – Orkney Springs, Va., Orkney Springs Hotel
July 23 – Bethlehem, Pa., Musikfest Cafe At ArtsQuest Center
July 27 – Truro, Mass., Payomet Performing Arts Center
July 29 – Woonsocket, R.I., Stadium Theatre
Aug. 6 – Lancaster, Pa., Long's Park Amphitheater
Please visit Arlo.net for more information.