By LINDA EAST BRADY
March 20, 2009
AUDIO: Arlo Guthrie performs his father Woody's "Tom Joad"
Arlo Guthrie may not be a household name in the traditional sense,
but he has made an impact on the American collective consciousness.
Maybe you first heard of him from his definitive recording of Steve
Goodman's classic railroad song, "City of New Orleans." Even if you
aren't a big music listener, you may have heard an excerpt of it on
ABC's "Good Morning America," where it was used for many years as the
program's theme song.
Or you might know Guthrie from the "Woodstock" soundtrack. His
drug-smuggling song, "Flying Into Los Angeles," wowed the festival's
high-flying crowd and became an underground radio hit.
For others, Thanksgiving just wouldn't be the same without indulging
in a listen of Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" -- a short
song/long story that takes an entire side of vinyl to complete.
Such is the case with Michelle Tanner, acoustic music aficionado and
founder of Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music, a society to help bring
folk music to the Top of Utah. Tanner remembers distinctly when her
brother brought home the album "Alice's Restaurant" when it debuted in 1967.
" 'Alice's Restaurant,' with his quirky lyrics and storytelling,
started a passion (in me) for ballads and talking blues," said
Tanner. "Both my brothers and I had that thing memorized through and
through. We listened to it all the time. And my brother-in-law, that
is the only record he ever bought, believe it or not."
Guthrie returns to Utah to play three shows starting next Friday --
two performances in Logan and one in Salt Lake City.
"We are sure excited to get him up here in Logan -- quite a coup,
those two shows hereabouts," said Blair Larsen, host of Logan-based
KUSU/KSUR 89.5 FM's show "Fresh Folk," and board member of the
Bridger Folk Music Society.
Life and times
For good or bad, Arlo Guthrie is known in large part as the most
successful in show biz of Woody Guthrie's many offspring.
Along with other leftist musical figures of the mid-20th century like
Pete Seeger, the elder Guthrie was an outspoken voice for social
change. His humor, charm and way with a lyric made him a beloved
celebrity despite his unpopular American Workers Party leanings.
His song "This Land Is Your Land" is practically an unofficial
national anthem to this day.
Said Larsen: "Can you even imagine the people in Arlo's life? Pete
Seeger coming over to the house to hang out? I can't even imagine the
things he saw and heard growing up. Arlo had a tremendous community
around him. But I'm sure it put a lot of pressure on him, too. He
probably tried to rebel against all that as a younger kid, as kids
do, but he seems to have eventually embraced it."
Tanner also referred to those who surrounded the younger Guthrie.
"He was raised with the strong musical influence of his father ...
and then was part of a community of people like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez,
Jim Croce," Tanner said. "And Arlo also came of age in an era where
people really started to speak their mind about political issues.
This is certainly reflected in their music."
Larsen said that both Guthries may have responded differently had
their particular times not been so turbulent. An Oklahoma native
whose family's comfortable fortunes plummeted during the Great
Depression, the elder Guthrie saw firsthand the face of the country's
need at one of its most desperate hours.
His son, on the other hand, came of age as the Vietnam draft and the
counterculture quake was shaking the nation.
"If Woody had come around at another time in our history, he probably
wouldn't be as influential as he is now," Larsen said. "It was the
right time for his message. I think it was a similar situation for Arlo."
Said Tanner: "I think (Arlo) is maybe even more influential than many
others of that era, than others his age, in part because of his
father's work. People paid attention to what he had to say, knowing
where Arlo came from."
The elder Guthrie died of Huntington's disease, a mysterious
hereditary ailment in which the brain essentially disintegrates. By
the time of Arlo's first flush of fame, his father was completely
incapacitated. Woody Guthrie died in 1967, just as the "Alice's
Restaurant" album broke big.
Arlo Guthrie may be better known as a storyteller than as a songsmith
and musician. Aside from his work backed by symphonies, where he
plays a more conventional concert, Guthrie's shows usually feature
far more tale-spinning than actual musical interludes.
"Alice's Restaurant Massacre" is maybe the best example of this. The
song itself is almost jingle-like in its brevity:
"You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant
You can get anything you want -- at Alice's restaurant
Walk right in, it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant."
The story that accompanies the song is a true one by all accounts,
and the real draw of the piece.
On Thanksgiving 1965, an 18-year-old Guthrie and his friend cleaned
out their friend Alice's house to thank her for feeding them a feast.
Their van thus full of refuse, the two found the dump closed for
Thanksgiving, and ended up illegally dumping the trash over a cliff,
on top of other illegally dumped items already there.
An officer inspecting the scene of the crime found a letter with
Guthrie's name on it among the refuse. Guthrie was arrested and
fined, and he and his buddy had to pick up the garbage.
Guthrie thought that was the end of it until three years later, when
he went in for his draft physical. His litterbugging ultimately kept
him out of the Vietnam War.
The song was later made into a hit movie starring Guthrie. Many
real-life figures from the incident, including the arresting officer,
Guthrie plays the whole story-song at most shows, in addition to
telling other stories the faithful have heard many times before.
Not that familiarity bothers his core audience, said Larsen.
"I have seen Arlo several times," Larsen said. "A lot of stories are
the same, the songs are the same -- but he is so fun and personable,
we don't mind hearing them again. Now with some performers, you are
like, 'Oh please, get a new joke,' but not him. I am happy to hear
anything from Arlo.
"His concerts are enveloping -- hours go by, but you are hooked in,
in that moment. You come out and you are like, 'Wow! That was
amazing.' Even though he probably sings the same thing every single
night, it never feels that way."
WHO: Arlo Guthrie
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. March 27 and 28
WHERE: Ellen Eccles Theater, 43 S. Main St., Logan
TICKETS: $22-$36; call (435) 752-0026.
ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES: 7:30 p.m. March 29, Kingsbury Hall, 1395
Presidents Circle, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. $29.50-$49.50,
available from the Kingsbury Hall box office, (801) 581-7100.