Volume #24, Issue #5
Arlo Guthrie: The Troubadour Goes Furthur
by Les Kippel and Toni A. Brown
Arlo Guthrie is a troubadour. He has spent a lifetime traveling and telling his tales to audiences of all ages. With sarcasm laced heartily with humor, Guthrie has helped awaken many consciences. He is a rebel for change, focusing on the hypocritical ironies that exist in our society. But he spreads his messages through song, entertainingly engaging and never belligerent.
Guthrie was invited to emcee the 1997 Furthur Festival, a job in a musical realm he anticipated exploring. We spoke with him just the tour began.
You’ve had a long career and the name Guthrie is synonymous with the troubadour ethic. Your father, Woody, played an important part in music “for the people”. His songs are inbred into our society.
Guthrie: Woody Guthrie was one of those guys who came around the Depression time and made himself a name. He was born in Okema, Oklahoma and his dad was wealthy, into real estate, a part-time prize-fighter, part-time deputy sheriff. Then the Depression hit and, at the same time, it stopped raining and the farms dried up and everybody had to move, but there was no money to move. There was no money to do anything. People were out of work. People were kicked out of their homes and, so, he became a migrant in the late ’20s and, in the early ’30s, he found himself with millions of other Americans out of work, out of money and out of somewhere to live or something to do and so he went to California and got himself on the radio and started writing songs and discovered that there were millions of people who liked hearing regular songs about themselves. They didn’t want to necessarily hear songs about living high off the hog or the kind of songs that were almost from a different planet.
There were people dancing in tuxedoes and gowns in Hollywood, singing songs and playing the kind of music that was typical in that time, but they almost acted as though everything was all right all the time. And there were millions of people who knew that everything was not all right and they wanted to hear, at least some of the time, songs that made them feel better—songs about who they were and what their hopes were and what they had dreams about. My dad started writing some of those songs and became very popular. He also wrote songs for little kids—they weren’t all about hard times or people going through journeys of one kind or another. He wrote all different kinds of songs and he wrote some books and made a lot of records and generally, I think, spoke up for people. In those days, for example, a lot of freedoms that we take for granted today had to be bought and paid for by people who took a chance on doing something a little dangerous. For example, in those days, you weren’t allowed to have a union talk to you. You weren’t allowed to even talk about it and people were getting killed for just doing that, silly as it seems. And so, people were working all day long and they were making pennies for doing it. There were young kids working in those days, too, and a lot of social changes have come about in the last 50 years. Kids are no longer working in the factories. You can’t work there for 12 hours without having a cup of coffee. You can’t get paid slave wages for doing lots of work. There were a lot of changes that happened as a result of my dad and a lot of other people singing, playing, talking and thinking about trying to make the world a better place.
Of course, WWII came along and he fought in that. He was instrumental in writing, singing songs about people putting aside all previous differences to fight what they thought was gonna be the last war in the world. Good against evil. It was after that war that he got sick and remained in the hospital for about 15 years before he finally died in 1967, just a few months after my first record came out. He got a chance to hear that. It was called Alice’s Restaurant and the family joke is that he heard the record and died. (Laughter)
In today’s culture, “Alice’s Restaurant” has become a classic. Radio stations play it every Thanksgiving. You probably had no awareness that it would turn out the way it did. How did you create it?
Guthrie: “Alice’s Restaurant” was a collection of events that had actually taken place that I was able to put into a sort of song-story, a kind of talking blues was what we used to call it, where you’re singing a song and playing some music and telling a story, all at the same time. “Alice’s Restaurant” developed as a result of some real-life things that had happened to me. I put them in a song over a period of time as the events took place and so, it took about a year or so to finalize it as it’s pretty well-known now. As a matter of fact, there were three “Alice’s Restaurants”. Two of ’em are gone and forgotten and the one that’s remembered is called The Massacre.
Is the restaurant still there, “half a mile past the railroad tracks”?
Guthrie: There is still a restaurant there and the food’s still pretty good. My friend, Alice, has moved on to other things and we’ve done some other things together. We just put out a book for children, actually, a book for anybody—it’s called Mooses Come Walking. Alice was an illustrator before she had the restaurant. She is a wonderful artist and she illustrated my Moose words, the book, which has been selling pretty well.
You never really were part of the psychedelic music scene out of the Bay Area in San Francisco.
Guthrie: No, I wasn’t. I went my own way very early in life and although I’d been to San Francisco and hung out with some of those guys back in the ’60s and early ’70s, I really liked doing my own thing and traveling. I came from another tradition—the tradition of this sort of traveling minstrel type. This sort of wandering troubadour guy in the way of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or some of the others before him [that date all the way] back to Medieval times, even back in caveman days when some guy would go telling stories. You always had one guy coming around singing some songs, telling stories from place to place and from time to time and I saw myself in that role and, frankly, still do. And so I never formed the kind of alliances and friendships with people that would allow me to become a part of a larger herd.
What did you think about the psychedelic ’60s in San Francisco?
Guthrie: It was obviously the great proponent of everything people were doing to change the world. People don’t realize it today, but the guys who are my age, it was really the first generation of people having to deal with this sudden rude awakening that we were the first generation of people having to deal with this sudden rude awakening that we were the first generation that had the capacity to completely destroy each other around the world within a very short space of time. And we were the first generation that had to deal with that. As a generation, we had to start doing things differently. We said to ourselves consciously or unconsciously, “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re gonna end up destroying each other. We can’t keep living in the same old way of being from a place where we’re the only guys who are right and everybody else is wrong. Where our tradition is the correct one and yours, if you come from anywhere else, is wrong—[where people are set apart because of] the color of your skin or your thoughts or your religion or the kind of food you eat or the kind of medicine you take or the kind of dance you do or the kind of literature you read or the kind of legacy you leave. All of these things we have to change and become adaptable, so that we can learn to survive together and then maybe even become friends with each other.
We all started doing different things and a lot of people did things that some people might consider foolish today, but you’ve got to remember what the alternative was. The alternative was to do the same things the same way our parents and their parents and their grandparents and everybody had been doing them for generations and we would not only end up maybe not here at all, but we’d end up dying these horrible deaths. This is not theoretical, by the way. We used technology to do this. It wasn’t like maybe someday we’ll use that bad bomb. We already did it, so it wasn’t a question of whether we would or not. We already knew we would because we had. So, the question was what are we gonna do about it? And we all did different things. There was the media, newspapers and politicians who found it to their advantage to say that some of the things that we were doing at the time might have been disruptive, illegal out of line and all kinds of things like that, but the truth was we were doing everything. And so, we brought about the evolution of human rights. We brought about the whole environmental program. We brought about a different world because we all decided we were gonna do things differently.
One of the things that we were doing, obviously, was the psychedelic thing, but that was only a small part of an entire change of civilization that we were trying to make happen. And not to make it happen individually, but to allow everybody to do their own thing and we did it musically. That was the most important way because, suddenly, we had a language that could reach out around the world. Every kid could understand what we were talking about because it was in the music. It wasn’t even in the understanding of the words. It went beyond that. And even in the words, we had words that meant one thing to us and meant other things to other people so that we could say things on the records and on the radio that no one else would even understand. And we all did that together in our own ways and, therefore, we had a lot in common, even though we might not have hung out or lived near each other or called each other on the phone every day. I think we all had and still have a mutual respect for each other ’cause we understood that what we were doing was more important than just making records or making a living.
30 years later, you’re coming into the psychedelic fold. You’ll be sharing the stage with first generation psychedelic musicians and you’re gonna be sharing the stage with a lot of the new generation—like moe. What do you think about being on this tour and being out front with members of the Grateful Dead?
Guthrie: (Laughter) Well, I’m just happy to be in a place and on stage and on tour with people whose work I have admired over the years. I’m looking forward to being more a part of the herd than I usually am. I’m excited, first of all, because it’s different for me. I guess I’m gonna get to play some music and I know we’re gonna jam together. I don’t have to play a whole lot and, as you can gather, talking is one of the things that I enjoy doing. I’m looking forward to being an emcee, which I’ve never been before in my life. So, for me, that’s a new thing and it has a certain element of fear and trepidation, which I love. I don’t get nervous these days doing my own stuff, so doing something else has that little edge to it. I’m looking forward to the feeling of being a little nervous and a little uncomfortable and a little like “What am I doing here?” It’s new for me. I’m in pig heaven at the moment, just looking forward with what my friends used to call “anticipatory drool”.