Folk for the everyman

Decades of stories in song with Arlo Guthrie at Memorial Hall

Photo: Arlo Guthrie

By L. Kent Wolgamott

Arlo Guthrie has, of late, toured celebrating the music of his father, folk music legend Woody Guthrie; marked the anniversary of his 1967 classic album, Alice’s Restaurant,”in shows; and now, he’s playing shows that don’t have that kind of theme and structure—both on his own and on his current tour with son Abe Guthrie and daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie.

In his words, “I tend to get a little more flexible.”

“It’s a kind of show I haven’t done for a few decades, in the sense that I haven’t done some of these [songs] for that long,” he said in an email interview. “There’s a set list posted on our website, but I wouldn’t go by that now.”

That said, it’s a good bet that Guthrie will do “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (the song’s full title) and a couple of his dad’s best known songs in his shows—songs that can still serve the folk protest tradition in the Twitter/Facebook era.

“Folk music is the original social media, and has always been in that role, although it has many other components also,” Guthrie says. “It’s not the latest greatest technology, but it has the longest proven track record. If you think of popular music as a part of it, it begins to make sense.”

And “Alice’s Restaurant,” a flat-out funny story, still seems to resonate as an anti-authoritarian anthem a half century after it was recorded by the teenage Guthrie.

“I’m 100 percent agreeable,” he says. “I think we, especially here in the USA, have a civic obligation to question authority at all times, and more so in times like these. This is, after all, the country of regular people, the average guy. We got rid of the kings and queens a long time ago. This is a country for the everyman (and woman). So our leaders need to constantly be reminded that the royal thing doesn’t end well for them.”

Born in 1947, the son of Woody and dancer Marjorie Guthrie, Arlo grew up in Brooklyn before graduating from high school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1965. That year, he was arrested for illegally dumping garbage, the incident that inspired the 18-minute “massacree”—the song that landed him a record deal.

In 1969, Guthrie played a late-night set on the first night of Woodstock. He had his biggest hit in 1972 with Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” and in 1976 released his most highly regarded album, Amigo. He played with his band Shenandoah from the ’70s through the early ’90s.

The Old Trinity Church, featured in “Alice’s Restaurant” (the song and in the 1969 movie version in which Guthrie plays himself), continues to have a role in his life. The Stockbridge church is now the headquarters of the Guthrie Center and Foundation, founded by Arlo 1991 to honor his parents.

The center, an interfaith church, and foundation, aimed at supporting culture and education in the Stockbridge area, are still going strong.

“I believe we’ve made a positive impact on our local community, but you’d have to ask them to get a real answer to your question,” he says. “At any rate, I don’t believe we’ve had a negative effect. I guess we keep trying, keep hoping, and we keep going. We get a lot of wonderful support from friends and neighbors, and from people across the world. I’m thrilled we’ve been given a chance to show that the values I have are shared by many people.”

Like most folk musicians before him, Guthrie feels an obligation to pass the music and its values on to succeeding generations.

“I went further than that,” he says. “I contributed to producing the next couple of generations personally. My wife did most of the work, but I helped. So I passed on not only the spirit and the songs but the actual living people. And I gotta say, I’m proud of them all.”

Arlo Guthrie plays Oct. 18 at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St. in Cincinnati. The show is $45-80. For more information, please call 513.977.8837 or visit ArloGuthrie.com/shows.

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L Kent Wolgamott
Reach DCP freelance writer L. Kent Wolgamott at LKentWolgamott@DaytonCityPaper.com

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