PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 20, 2007

Arlo Guthrie's Family Business

by Jim Newsom

Arlo Guthrie tells a funny story on his most recent album, Live in Sydney, about trying to remember the words to his classic eighteen-and-a-half minute “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” while performing with his children, Abe and Sarah Lee. The tale concludes, after traveling down several Arlo-esque sideroads, with “my little daughter Sarah Lee trying to figure it out on the guitar…When she comes to Australia, just ask her; I’m sure she’ll be happy to do it for you.”

“Sarah Lee goes down there about five months later,” Arlo laughed as we talked a couple of weeks ago, “and the crowd was waiting for ‘Alice’s Restaurant.’ People were getting angry saying ‘she didn’t do Alice’s Restaurant; I want my money back!’ Sarah’s been mad at me ever since.”

We’ll see if she’s still mad this week when they bring the “Guthrie Family Legacy Tour” to the American Theatre for a two-night stand Tuesday and Wednesday. The show will spotlight the music of Arlo and his offspring while drawing from the rich heritage created by his dad, the legendary folksinger and songwriter Woody Guthrie. The family’s multi-generational legacy is unmatched in American music.

“He wrote about 3,500 songs that we have,” Arlo said of his father’s prodigious output. “He’s written so many kinds of songs—peace songs, war songs, murder ballads, the history of things, songs for kids. I’ve always tried to get some of the more obscure songs out there that I liked.”

What, I wondered, was the impact of having the composer of “This Land is Your Land,” a man revered as an American icon, for a father?

“It wasn’t just my dad,” was Arlo’s reply. “I think it was my dad’s world that I was born into. You get born into not just a family, but a circle of people—family, friends, relatives. The family of friends that my dad and mom had created was fairly impressive—everybody from Martha Graham, who was my mom’s mentor, to Pete Seeger, who was my dad’s buddy. There was a wide range of people, from the old bluesmen like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGehee to the Lomaxes, who created the first treasury of songs about people who worked for a living and their history.

“I grew up in a world that was listening to all that stuff and getting out to see those people when they were coming to town. So it wasn’t just my father himself, it was a whole world of people that surrounded him. I loved it; I felt like I was on a pirate ship and we were sailing around meeting all these weird characters and having some fun with them.”

Woody Guthrie spent most of the last thirteen years of his life hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative and incurable nerve disorder. He died in 1967, just after his twenty year old son’s first album was released.

“It wasn’t as bad as some of the books and stories make out,” Arlo said of his father’s lengthy hospitalization. “We went to see him every week and brought the fiddles and the banjos, the mandolins, the guitars and the harmonicas, and we sat down on the grass and played music for hours.

“In the winters when it was cold out, we’d bring him to some friends’ house that was near where he was holed up in the hospital, and we’d just spend a day together playing music. I got to hang out with his buddies, which was kinda fun; I got to not only meet these folks, but as I got a little bit older, I was able to hang out with them, tag along with them. When I got interested in playing music, I started asking, ‘How do you do that?’ And every one of ‘em would take the time to show me stuff. So I loved growing up like that.”

After the release of that first album, Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo became a kind of icon to his own generation. His children also grew up around music and musicians.

“I have four kids,” he said. “Abe is the oldest, in his mid-30s. Cathy has a little duo with Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy, a group called Folk Uke. My daughter Annie is the one that’s holding down the fort businesswise, but she also plays music with her sisters. And my youngest, Sarah Lee, is on the road with us with her husband Johnny Irion.

“They grew up on the stage, so it doesn’t scare ‘em. When I was younger, we useta take all the kids. We had these big plush guitar cases, velvet lined, and we’d take the guitars out, put the kids in the cases, do the show, then take the kids out, put the guitars in and go to the next place. I’m not kidding!”

He also taught them that there was more to the family business than just making music.

“When my dad passed away, all of a sudden there were all these lawyer types standing around saying, ‘this is the way it’s set up.’ And I realized I didn’t know one damn thing about how any of this business stuff worked. I thought being a folksinger you’d just grab a guitar, hitch a ride somewhere, play a couple of songs on a streetcorner, and off you go.

“But there was more to the business part of it that I didn’t understand. And it took me years to figure it out. Because my dad’s songs had been recorded, you would expect there’d be some income from that, and there wasn’t—nobody was keeping up their part of the deal.

“When I started having kids, I wanted them to understand how it worked so if I was ever out of here for some reason, they would have a handle on the business end of it. The truth is they not only fell in love with that, they fell in love with playing the music, which warmed my heart a lot.”

Arlo first performed in public when he was thirteen, at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village when his dad’s pal Cisco Houston brought him up onstage.

“It scared the hell out of me,” he remembered. “It seemed like it took an hour just to stand up. When I got to the stage, I stopped breathing for about ten minutes and did three songs, and vowed I was never gonna do that again! Of course, that didn’t work out.”

As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, Arlo Guthrie is both the finest folksinger of his generation and one of its most entertaining performers. And now, not only are his children carrying on the family tradition, so are their children.

“We had our sixth grandkid a few days ago,” he told me. “We’re turning into a regular orchestra here. Sarah Lee’s daughter Olivia has been sneaking out on the stage to sing with us. She’s taken up ukulele and fiddle, and she’s actually playing the stuff—she’s only four. She always steals the show.

“I don’t care if they’re professionals or not, that’s not really the point. The point is to have some fun in your life with other people, and there’s no better introduction to somebody else than sitting down and playing some music with them.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.


"An Evening with Arlo"
November 8, 2005
A review of Arlo's Live in Sydney.

"Keeping the Faith with Arlo Guthrie"
July 6, 2004
An earlier interview with Arlo Guthrie.