Questions for Arlo Guthrie
By DEBORAH SOLOMON
Published: July 21, 2009
As one of the iconic figures of the '60s counterculture, are you
surprised by the fuss that is being made over the 40th anniversary of
the Woodstock music festival, at which you performed? Do you think
Woodstock is overrated?
No. We're still talking about it. How many other events from 1969 are
we still talking about?
Maybe Woodstock was nothing more than a glorified party at which
white kids from the suburbs discovered camping and smoking pot in the rain.
If it had been just that, that would have been fun enough, but the
truth is it wasn't that. There were all colors of kids and varieties
of kids, and these were the very same kids who had been brought up to
believe in grade school that when you see the big white mushroom
cloud, be sure to get under the desk quickly.
You don't believe there was any real threat of the world ending in a
It was a real threat. But the response to it was crazy. At some
point, these kids grew up and said, "What?" They realized that the
people who are teaching you and the people who are in positions of
authority are actually insane.
You're giving a free evening concert in New York this Thursday, July
30, at Battery Park.
Free to the public. It doesn't mean I'm doing it for free.
You're a New York native, right?
Yes, I was born in Coney Island. The Holy Land.
Will you be performing your best-known song, "Alice's Restaurant," a
long, talky, antiwar ballad initially inspired by a trip you made to
the town dump in Stockbridge, Mass., one Thanksgiving?
Garbage has been pretty good to me. But I won't be performing the
song. It's a half-hour, and performing it is like being in the same
half-hour "Groundhog Day" movie every night of your life. Most of the
audience that follows me is already sick of hearing of it.
Did you find it disappointing when the public attention lavished on
folk music in the '60s dissipated and disco came in?
No. Folk music is music that everyday people can play, and it
inspired a lot of people to make their own music. That trailed into
making your own pop music, and that's why garage bands started
springing up everywhere.
Where are you politically these days?
I became a registered Republican about five or six years ago because
to have a successful democracy you have to have at least two parties,
and one of them was failing miserably. We had enough good Democrats.
We needed a few more good Republicans. We needed a loyal opposition.
Have you ever run for political office?
I ran once, for one day. I thought I would be governor of
Massachusetts. I stood on a pile of my old albums and said, "I'm the
only one with a record to stand on."
You have four children, all of whom are folk singers and with whom
you will be touring this fall. Do you go around on a bus together?
Yes. It's big enough now that we need two buses. And the grandkids
they all play. Actually two of them opened a show for me this summer.
That was the funniest freaking thing, with the little one pushing her
way in there with a guitar.
How often do you think of your dad, the folk legend Woody Guthrie,
who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and died of Huntington's disease?
Every day. I think of my parents as a single unit, and it's
interesting because they shared so much and they were totally
opposite. My mother, a Martha Graham dancer, had a classical
background; my father had a back-porch background.
Have you ever seen "American Idol"?
No, I have never watched it. But I'm thankful we're living in a world
where we can actually afford to waste your time. What a great thing that is.
Guthrie 'coming into Southold'
1960s hippie icon plays Southold High School Auditorium Aug. 1
BY ERIN SCHULTZ | STAFF WRITER
"You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant."
The words and accompanying jingle of the 18-minute spoken-word song,
"Alice's Restaurant," catapulted Arlo Guthrie to fame in 1967.
The tune recounts Mr. Guthrie's real-life experiences at a hippie
Thanksgiving dinner inside a church, a trip to a landfill in a
Volkswagen van and hung-over dealings with the draft board.
The 1969 movie of the same name, directed by Arthur Penn of "Bonnie
and Clyde" fame and often described as the first music video, forever
tied the fifth son of American folk music icon Woody Guthrie to the
Summer of Love, Woodstock and the height of hippiedom.
At 62, Mr. Guthrie said he's quite all right with all that. But he
won't be playing "Alice's Restaurant" when he takes the stage at the
Southold High School auditorium next Saturday.
"It's been off the menu for a while," he said during a phone
interview last week before his show at the Fitzgerald Theater in
Minneapolis. "I can't do the half-hour every night. It'd be like
living in that "Grounddog day" movie. It would drive me nuts."
Mr. Guthrie said he'll play "Alice's Restaurant" only on anniversary
dates of the song, and that the Southold appearance is just one of a
few "in and out" performances around the country before his lengthy
solo tour kicks in.
He said certain signature songs like "Coming into Los Angeles,"
featured on the Woodstock soundtrack, and "City of New Orleans" are
often featured in his recent shows.
He'll also play a few of his father's songs, many of which have
become part of the country's cultural fabric: "This Land is Your
Land," "Do Re Mi," and "Deportees," a song about the death of 28
migrant farm workers in the 1940s.
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Guthrie grew up surrounded by folk musicians
like Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He often
performs with such modern-day music icons as Willie Nelson, Judy
Collins and Emmylou Harris, playing guitar, piano and harmonica at
venues from bars to churches. He's even performed alongside the
Boston Pops Orchestra.
Mr. Guthrie discussed his music and a gave his take on current events
during an interview with a reporter from The Suffolk Times:
Q: When did you realize you had a knack for your particular kind of
A: As a kid, I didn't know a lot of songs. So I'd spend a lot of time
in between songs, telling stories to justify why I was on stage
[laughs]. That ended up being a major part of what I did.
Q: Are you seeing some younger faces out in the audience these days?
A: I actually am, especially the past two years. My audience was
typically my father's peers [in the beginning]. Then I was able to
gather my own flock and maintain them. Now I think I'm seeing their
kids and grandkids.
Q: A song like your father's "Deportees" is still relevant, I would
say even more so today, especially on the East End of Long Island
with its Guatemalan workforce. Your father captured the emotion
around these societal ills that will never go away, yes?
A: For sure. Some of the songs have changed their meaning over time.
On the one hand, it's great that the songs were written with a long
shelf life. But it's too bad the world still sucks. You'd have
thought we'd have gotten somewhere by now.
I think the problem [of immigration] is about the same. Not only
here, but around the world. When it becomes bad in one place, you
naturally have to move. My father's generation got caught up in that
too. The Depression and the big drought happened simultaneously,
breeding doubt and fear.
Q: Are we on the brink of another great depression?
A: Well, I'm not a fortune teller -- but it ain't over yet.
Q: Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a hippie? Overly tied to the late
'60s, Woodstock, the whole thing?
A: Not at all. It's like the wake of a ship going through. You can't
deny that's your wake back there. I've always had fun with it.
In fact, I just found a tape that was recorded in late 1968. It was a
concert I did with the Grateful Dead on Long Island, but I can't
remember where it was specifically, it was so long ago. The tape had
deteriorated over time, so I had it digitized. When it came back, it
wasn't bad at all. When my kids heard it, they were in tears, holding
their guts and just laughing.
There were songs on there that I hadn't remembered singing -- that I
wrote! So not only am I tied to the '60s, I'm still releasing work
from that era.
Q: So being the iconic '60s hippie forever is OK with you?
A: Oh yeah. Because the most important qualities of hippiedom didn't
have to do with soap. They had to do with being free, with living
your own life and taking care of yourself. Those were the values of
the time, and they still have some value.
Q: Does the '60s-era hippie still exist in some form today?
A: I don't know. But there was a time when you couldn't work for the
postal service if you had a mustache. We got through that idiocy, and
now you can do whatever you want with a mustache. You can work a real
job or you can be a flake. Nowadays, people are walking around in
vampire clothing, and that's fine. So are suits and ties. These are
the costumes of the soul.
Q: Are we freer than we were in 1969, then?
A: In some personal ways, yes. But we are less free with the
overbearing rules and regulations, the constant Ralph Nader-isms. The
state continues to protect people from themselves, from learning from
their own mistakes and their own experiences. You didn't find that
kind of idiocy 40 years ago.
Q: Have you ever defined yourself as a protest singer?
A: Yes and no. It's like being a farmer and going about your business
on the farm, then having the black suits come in and tell you that
what you're doing is illegal. So the idea of being an activist is not
about protesting professionally. But there is an obligation to say
something about the freedoms you had before they said "you can't do it."
Q: So as a musician, are you back to farming?
A: Well, we're still in Iraq. And there's the medical stuff and the
money crisis, all affecting everybody in subtle ways. I might take
some old songs and retune them [for today]. There are some things I'm
not real happy about.