Interview With Arlo Guthrie   Leave a comment

Originally published in Victory Review (

Arlo: The Son Also Rises
(In Search of my Inner Guthrie)

I began the telephone interview, as is my policy, with full disclosure.  I advised Arlo not to expect objective journalism.  I told him that I was a fan of his since a friend thrust a copy of the newly-released Alice’s Restaurant record into my hands in 1967 while sitting in a classroom at Queens College. “Holy crap!” I uttered, “That’s Woody Guthrie’s son!”

That was 45 years ago.

Like most of my peers in the worldwide web of folk music, I have always considered Arlo my brother.  After all, aren’t we all “Woody’s children?”

But there were other connections, mostly geographic…

For instance, I grew up in Queens Village , NY, which was also the home of Creedmoor State Hospital where Woody’s chronic battle with Huntington’s Disease reached its inevitable conclusion.

As I went merrily about my way, playing stickball and sneaking cigarettes with my friends, Woody was being visited by his friends such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.

Later in the decade, I spent my summers as a counselor at a summer camp outside of Great Barrington, MA, which is currently the home of the Guthrie Center and a stone’s throw from Stockbridge and Alice’s Restaurant.

Another intersection of our lives was Fort Hamilton where we both dealt with our own selective service comedies.  Arlo told me that though he had started the process at the now-iconic Whitehall Street, he finished up at Fort Hamilton on the southern tip of Brooklyn.  My disqualification was not the product of a misdemeanor littering charge but rather the recommendations of shrinks from NYC and SF attesting to the fact that the army would be a better place without my presence.

Finally, to celebrate my new-found status as unfit for military service, I jumped on the subway and rode it a few stops to Coney Island where I transferred to the Cyclone, the then-tallest roller coaster in the world where I spent the remainder of the afternoon.  Coney Island, of course, was the home of the Guthrie Family during Arlo’s childhood.

There is one other connection that I had not known.  We both hade maternal grandmothers named Greenblatt.  Go figure!

Oh yeah, trying to emulate his dad, I rode a freight car through British Columbia.  Almost froze my lower extremities.  Thanks a lot, Woody!

I contacted Arlo at his motel in Irving, TX, on Sunday Morning at 10:00 am, central time.  He had recently risen and had yet to have his breakfast.

VR:  I was at the Zoo tunes show you did a few years back in Seattle with your kids.  When you were introduced Coming Into Los Angeles, you talked about having recently encountered some Secret Service agents at an airport.  They had recognized you and were walking your way.  As you described, you wondered what they wanted as “I had not become the threat I’d hoped to be….”  Then upon arriving at your seat, one smiled and said, “Guthrie, are you coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys?”  Great story.  Great laugh.

What did you mean by the statement “I had not become the threat I’d hoped to be…?”

ARLO: When you’re 19-20 years-old, the world doesn’t change fast enough.  But as you grow older you sort of evolve into an elder statesman.  I learned that working and touring with Pete Seeger.  We didn’t start out traveling together…we just began showing up at the same places, after awhile, we began scheduling limited annual tours for 30 years.  Now that Pete is older, I’ve been doing some myself…the elder statesman.

VR: One of the first things I saw when I opened my Facebook page today was a blurb for your upcoming April 14 show at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma.  It began, “Arlo, son of famed folksinger, Woody Guthrie…”

It’s been 45 years since Alice’s Restaurant.  Do you think that ongoing reference to your dad has overshadowed your own identity as an artist?

ARLO: Don’t care.  I don’t write those blurbs.  They’re written by PR folks.  Besides I’m proud to be billed in that manner.  It’s a continuity.  Recently, I was in Sweden, playing some of the smaller clubs I don’t get a chance to do here these days.  I went into one for the first time and the first thing I saw was a concert poster of Sarah Lee and Johnny (Arlo’s daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie and husband Johnny Irion).  So, there I was…Sarah Lee Guthrie’s father!

VR: Your family has been called….

ARLO: Don’t use the term folk royalty…

VR: I was going to say the first family of folk music.  At least the most celebrated.  You grew up among the most celebrated members of the folk music community.  Of those, who were your greatest influences…teachers…?

ARLO: Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry were like my uncles.  My mother always took me to see them wherever they were performing.  Brownie on guitar, Sonny on harp.  Doug Dillard…banjo.  I stole from everybody.

VR: Your dad would call that…research.

ARLO: I researched from everybody.  I would go to see Mississippi John Hurt, sit in the front row and just watch his hands.  The Everly Brothers…Cisco Houston.  I actually did my first performance at Gerdes Folk City in NY with Cisco.  I was 13.  It wasn’t planned.  He called me up on stage.  It was his last performance.  He died of cancer a few months later.

VR: That’s continuity.  I want to talk a bit about your dad.

ARLO: Did you know he had a photographic memory?

VR: No.

ARLO: He also read everything.  I remember talking to the librarian of the public library in one town who told me he had read every book on their shelves.  And he remembered everything he read.

VR: And wrote about a lot of it.  What do you think were his most important songs…and your  favorites?  Starting with “This Land Is Your Land.”

ARLO: That’s not what I consider among his best.  Actually songs like “1913 Massacre,” “Sacco & Venzetti,” and “Tom Joad” were among the most important and best.  My dad wrote “Tom Joad” after seeing “Grapes of Wrath.”  When John Steinbeck heard the recording he sent Woody a brief letter which read: “”You little bastard.  You said in twelve verses what it took me an entire book to say.”

VR: Coming back to “This Land Is Your Land” and the other sing-alongs.  Doesn’t that go back to the continuity thing?  It connects us to Woody and to each other.  “This Land” has also been called the people’s national anthem.

ARLO: True

(At this point, Arlo reminded me he had not as yet had his breakfast; I reminded him that I would be reviewing his 4/14 show at the Pantages)

VR: One more thing and I’ll let you eat.  Your kids are all out there performing and now your grandkids.  Did you encourage them?

ARLO: I discouraged them.  Or tried to.  I told them that if you are going to do this, it’s got to be everything that you do.  You cannot do anything else.  You will be burning bridges.  Plus, you have to find the people who you want to learn from and be with them.  Make yourself useful…take out their garbage…wash their cars.  There’s no substitute.

VR: What was the most important thing you learned from your parents?

ARLO: Be yourself.  It’s better to have failed as yourself than failed trying to be someone else.

VR: Bon Appetite.

“Arlo Guthrie: Boys Night Out Tour”
Saturday, April 14 7:30p
Broadway Center for the Performing Arts: Pantages Theater, Tacoma, WA

Gary Kanter is a writer and songwriter who performed at his first Open Mic in Manhattan in the early 70’s, receiving just enough encouragement to inflict his songs and humor on audiences in the Canadian Maritimes, Nashville, and the Pacific Northwest.

Also by Gary Kanter:

Posted April 1, 2012 by garykanter in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: