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Folk Art

Arlo Guthrie seems happy and content with his role as folkie elder statesman.
Henry Diltz

Ask Arlo Guthrie, one of the featured artists at the original Woodstock and a man who has been performing in public since age 13, if he ever expected his career to last this long, and he'll answer with an emphatic no. Then he'll laugh, a high-pitched chuckle, really.

"I always knew I'd play music," says the 53-year-old son of folk legend and American populist icon Woody Guthrie. "And actually, even to begin with, I never thought that this would be a profession with me. I just knew that I'd sit around picking with my friends. But it's ended up being a fairly long-running profession for me."

Perhaps more surprising than his longevity, Guthrie's music remains lucrative, as lucrative as it's ever been in his career, in fact. "I can tell you, this is the best year I've ever had. Ever," he proclaims. "I'm talking since the days we were doing stadiums and those kind of places, which don't really work with the kind of music I am doing anyway. It's happier for me than it's been for a long time. And this came about with nothing. We're not pushing any records. There's no company behind us. There's no big money or anything. We're just doing it, and something is happening."

Perhaps it's a tribute to the family business. Guthrie has been putting out his records on his own Rising Son label, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, since the early 1980s. And thanks to a licensing agreement, he also reissues the sessions he cut for Warner Bros. earlier in his career.

What's more, four of his children are involved in the enterprise. Two of them help run the Rising Son office, while son Abe, who plays keyboards, and daughter Sarah, who sings, often perform with him. (In Houston, Guthrie will be backed by Abe's band Zephyr, with Sarah on vocals.) And it has all developed through an organic process.

"I didn't ask them to be musicians. I didn't even really help them," Guthrie explains. "They all decided in their own way and in their own time that this is what they wanted to do. And the great thing is, when you're working with your kids, there's a whole different attitude you have to have than when you are just a parent." Guthrie is no longer a lone troubadour folkie, if he ever was one. He plays in a variety of contexts these days: in a trio with Abe and Sarah, with the band Zephyr and, yes, sometimes solo. In recent years, he also has appeared with symphony orchestras. Though his father's folk music is the most obvious influence, his mother, Marjorie Guthrie, also shaped young Arlo. A dancer with the famed Martha Graham Dance Company, Marjorie tutored her children in the classical tradition even as they were picking up folk vibrations from their father and other family friends such as Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and a young Bob Dylan.

Guthrie still labels his music "folk," but he notes how the definition has changed over the years. In the late 1950s, folk was "college music," he says. "In the next decade, it turned into protest songs. Within another decade, it had turned into whining. None of those categories had ever suited me very well. I didn't stay in college very long. I had a few things to say about something, but if you look back at my catalog, most of it is not complaining about something. And I'm not really a whiner."

Instead, Arlo Guthrie is a good-humored storyteller whose stage raps are as engaging as his singing; he draws from a performing tradition that goes back decades, if not centuries. He continues to ride the many waves that have attempted to take folk to sunnier shores; he has gone from riding the cultural zeitgeist of the '60s to being stranded far from the mainstream these days. He seems happy and content to play the role of folkie statesman.

"The kind of music I play, and have been playing for years, really hasn't been popular, at least as far as the industry is concerned, since the early '70s," he acknowledges. "So even though you don't see it on the TV, and we aren't with any major labels, and there's nothing usually written in the trade magazines, and I'm not on the radio, it's just two different worlds going on out here. And if I had to pick one to be in, it would be this one, and not the industrial one. We're doing really well, and we can't fit any more people into the shows we're doing, so I don't see how it can get any better."

He's also gratified to see that his father's music and writings have undergone a revival in recent years; the most obvious and perhaps best example of this comes from Billy Bragg and Wilco, who have set some of Woody Guthrie's lyrics to new melodies on their Mermaid Avenue albums. "A lot of people identified Woody Guthrie, at first, as just a Dust Bowl balladeer," Arlo notes. "And he went from that to becoming known as the spokesperson for the little guy, or the union guy, or being the stop-the-fascists guy. He went through a bunch of transformations and a bunch of pigeonholes, just like the music did. Now, what's happening is that we are seeing a real blossoming of what it means to be Woody Guthrie."

But there is also a downside to possessing the genes of the great Woody Guthrie: There is a chance, usually about 50 percent for children of afflicted parents, that Arlo could develop Huntington's disease, which killed his father in 1967. Yet even that is something Arlo views with a sense of perspective. As he ages, the possibility of being stricken with Huntington's is "less likely."

Even if it did happen, "it wouldn't matter as much," he adds. "Because in my father's case, it took 15 years to kill him. And for most of that time he was able to walk around and talk and think and write and do a lot of things.In those days, they didn't have a clue as to what he had, let alone how to treat it. So even if I started coming down with it now, I know I'd still have another 15 years."

While life may be good now for Arlo Guthrie, he still has a regret; it concerns a certain 18-minute song that made him famous and that he continues to perform night after night.

"If I'd known years ago what I know now, "Alice's Restaurant' would have been a whole lot shorter."


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