Looking back on the long career of a legendary American son
Arlo Guthrie turns 75 today, and his debut album Alice’s Restaurant turns 55 in October.
Both of those numbers contribute to yet another one of those shake-your-head-in-astonishment moments for those of us who grew up with the man and this music.
Of course, it was the lengthy, satirical, talking-blues centerpiece song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” that sucked us in. It became something of an out-of-left-field sensation back then – this deadpan and wry tale of draft resistance, low-level malfeasance and celebration – and continues to resonate with folk fans of all generations today. Especially on Thanksgiving, where it’s still spun on the turntable of many an aging hippie.
The song has had, shall we say, an interesting evolution for Guthrie.
“I remember doing a show where I was doing ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and someone yelled ‘Shut up and sing!” Guthrie told me, in an email interview four years ago. “And then after ‘Alice’ had become a hit, and I had dropped it from my set list, I was singing some songs and someone yelled ‘Shut up and talk!’ I figured out pretty quickly that you can’t please all the people all the time. I began to just be myself and let the chips fall where they may.”
VIDEO: Alice’s Restaurant film trailer
For years, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” remained a key part of Arlo’s set. You wonder, when thinking about any musician’s “hit” and playing it in concert year after year, was it a song he still enjoyed or had it become more obligatory?
He executed a bit of a dodge, and not an uncommon one. “Many of the young people coming to my shows these days are coming for the first time, and some of the older folks are coming for the last time,” Guthrie said. “With that in mind, I’m happy to be performing the songs that mean the most to them.”
Alice’s Restaurant was released just weeks after the death of his famous father, Woody. As it turned out, before I spoke with Arlo, I had recently talked to his middle daughter and manager, singer-songwriter Annie Guthrie, about her music. But one of the things she said about her dad was this: “For a lot of his career, people expected him to act and say things in a certain way because he was Woody’s kid.”
I wondered what kind of pressure that may have put on Arlo in his early days. How did he both respect his father – the legend that he was, the mark he made in political music – and still try and put that aside to make the music he wanted to make?
“In the very early days from 1961 through 1966,” Guthrie said, “my setlist had a lot of my father’s songs in it. I think people wanted to hear those kinds of songs during what we called ‘The Folk Boom.’ In a time when folk music was being defined by the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others it was nice to be a less than polished performer. I began to develop my own performance skills simply because I was doing it every night. Some humor, some ability to play an instrument, tell a tall tale – all these were part of a great tradition within the folk music world. My father, for example was a really good story teller, but that part of his performance was never heard on the records he made. They simply recorded the songs one by one.”
“Also, my dad was able to accompany himself on guitar but he was not what we today would know as a musician. I wanted to be able to do that – to go anywhere and play with anyone whatever their musical style happened to be. To do that you have to be an actual musician. I was different than my father in that regard. I built upon differences like that and began adding my own creations to the shows I was doing. Still, there were people coming to the gigs who weren’t interested in my stuff; they just wanted to hear my father’s songs. I realized that I had to be very entertaining to overcome the expectations of some of my audience.”
In concert, Arlo typically did some of Woody’s stuff, but also some Dylan, Donovan, Lead Belly and others. He likes to close concerts with “This Land is Your Land” and “My Peace.” As many know, “This Land” contained many verses that many have consciously omitted (or forgotten) over the years. I wondered what those verses – the ones that did not reflect so positively about our country – meant to Arlo.
“As far as ‘This Land’ is concerned,” he said, “unlike most people I knew that it was my dad, and not other people who edited his verses and decided which ones were to be included in the final version that became popular. He taught me three extra verses when I was very young, and I began including them in my shows. Of course, this was long before the internet, so these days anyone can find them, whereas in those days you had to hear them from someone who actually knew them. Because of that, I rarely do all six verses now, and generally prefer doing my favorites (naturally with stories in between). Doing what you like, and not having to please everyone, or not trying to make it official, academic, and routine is something I think Dad would have whole heartedly approved.”
What kind of political animal was Guthrie?
“I’m not very interested in politics,” he said, “so much as I am interested in culture. I tend to address the cultural climate in our shows, and not whether it’s left or right. I’ve always thought that being nice, respectful, and real is better than being a butt-head, disrespectful and false.”
In an essay published on his website, Guthrie quoted Tom Paine: “To argue with a man who has renounced the use … of reason and whose philosophy consists of holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead.” Guthrie advocated a “healthy suspicion of authority, left, right or center.”
Guthrie liked to rotate songs in and out of sets from year to year. For instance, “Coming into Los Angeles,” the whimsical song about bringing in a couple of kilos of pot to L.A. (“Don’t touch my bags, if you please, Mr. Customs Man”) seemed to have disappeared when we did our email exchange. (The song gained even more fame following its appearance in the Woodstock movie.) Guthrie wrote it and there was a kernel of truth to it, though, he noted in a Los Angeles Times story, the “size of the stash” was greatly overplayed for dramatic (or maybe rhyming) effect. I noticed from a www.setlist.fm checked that he seemed to have dropped it.
No big deal. Not really. “We’re not doing the same thing year after year. And there’s no way to fit all the songs in for all the shows, so I move it around. It’s that simple.” For that matter, he said he rarely played his song “Massachusetts” when he played in the state. And that, as we Bay Staters know is the state song.
Guthrie liked to build his sets from selections in what’s frequently called “The Great American Songbook.” I asked if he tried to make a thematic statement or how he explained his standards or criteria.
“I do the songs that I like, and that mean something to me,” Guthrie said. “Songs like ‘City of New Orleans’ have become part of the folk tradition even though it was written by someone recent – Steve Goodman. I don’t know who wrote some of the songs I do, but I must’ve heard them somewhere. I just do whatever I like.”
VIDEO: Arlo Guthrie “City of New Orleans”
A question, I’ve asked more than a few veteran artists, as they’ve hit that “twilight of their career” zone: What, as a musician/singer/performer do you think you’ve gained or lost over the years?
“I’ve gained about 50 pounds since I began,” Guthrie said, “and I’ve lost a lot of dear friends, simply out-lived them. I guess it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, it’s the same is true for just about everyone my age.”
As it happened, Guthrie’s last gigs were in March of 2020, before the pandemic lockdown. On Oct. 23, 2020 Guthrie announced on his website his retirement from touring in an essay entitled “Gone Fishing.” He explained he had suffered a series of mini-strokes starting in 2016 and before the pandemic hit, he felt about 80 % all right.
Guthrie wrote: “A folksinger’s shelf life may be a lot longer than a dancer or an athlete, but at some point, unless you’re incredibly fortunate or just plain whacko (either one or both) it’s time to hang up the ‘Gone Fishing’ sign. Going from town to town and doing stage shows, remaining on the road is no longer an option.”
But, he added, he was “happy and healthy and good to go.”
To the old (metaphorical) fishing hole, one presumes.