Arlo Guthrie - a synopsis of my article “You Can Get Anything You Want” –
A conversation with Arlo Guthrie
By Susan Cross
Forty years after Woodstock the world has changed immensely. Did Woodstock influence that change? Did the anti-war hippies, soon to be known as baby-boomers, cause the country to adjust its perspective?
Is the world a better place as a result of Woodstock?
Arlo Guthrie didn’t hesitate before responding to that last question. “No question about it. We were the ones who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis when we were on the brink of annihilation and thankfully we got over the brink and we have not had a moment like that since. We’ve had some awful moments don’t get me wrong but we haven’t had one like that.”
Growing up, Arlo had his future all mapped out. He looked forward to living his life as a forest ranger; sitting up in a tower alone most of the time watching for fires. His vision of a solitary life turned 180 degrees in the late ‘60s.
Four children and seven grandchildren later, the Guthries are a very close family.
Like in other families, the kids went off in different directions, but according to Arlo, “They all snuck back. That’s probably due to my wife,” [who passed away in the fall of 2012] Arlo said. “She is the anchor of the family and she’s not a performer but when the kids were young we’d sit down and she could play enough guitar and sing stuff to get ‘em to fall asleep anyway and that was good. So it’s my wife Jackie who’s really kept the entire family together over all these years and she’s still doing it.”
Even now, all of the kids and grandkids live within a few miles of one another except for Cathy who lives in Austin, Texas. “We’re in the farther most reaches of Massachusetts up in the hills.”
Arlo and Jackie are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. “Four things happened in 1969,” Arlo reminisced. “That was a big year for me. Went and did Woodstock; went up to Massachusetts and bought an old farm, got married on the farm and then the movie “Alice’s Restaurant” came out. That was all within the last three or four months of ’69. We’re still doing songs from Woodstock, still living on the farm, still married to the same wife and we don’t watch the movie anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Surprisingly, Arlo had no problem recounting the names and ages of his entire clan. He rattled them off in a heartbeat. “Abe is my oldest, and his oldest is Krishna, he’s 18. Serena is Abe’s daughter. She stole my 50th birthday so I always know how old either I am or she is because it’s exactly 50 years to the day. She is 11 at this point. She will be 12 by the time the tour starts. Then my daughter, Cathy, she has a little daughter, Marjorie. Marjorie is about 2 so she’s not going to be doing a whole lot but she’s going to be dancing around the stage somewhere. My next daughter is Annie and her oldest is Mo and Mo is--or will be about 16 and I could have these wrong by the way. And Jacklyn is also Annie’s daughter and she’s about 8. And then Sarah Lee has a daughter, Olivia and Olivia is the same age as Jacklyn and they also have a little daughter Sophia who is the same age as Marjorie. That’s it, I think, that’s all seven grandkids.”
All four of Arlo’s children write music and now Krishna, his oldest grandson, is starting to write songs. “We’re involved in all different things because obviously we’re all different people. We don’t have a herd mentality when it comes to social consciousness. I think everybody’s very individual.” Arlo said, “All of my father’s and all of my songs were not all about social consciousness. “There were a lot of love songs, broken heart songs; got drunk once too many time songs; lost my dog songs; I mean there’s all kinds of songs but we do not neglect songs about things that are going on.”
“Some of the songs that Sarah Lee and Johnny, her husband, have just released an album of children’s songs because they think that real children’s songs, as opposed to the commercial variety of funny jelly bean characters running around are not that helpful for growing up right. So they put together a great collection of songs for kids, I mean little kids that are absolutely wonderful. I think the Smithsonian Folk Waves is putting it out so it would be like PBS or NPR was putting it out. It would not be your commercial variety. So they’re involved with young people growing up because they have young people growing up,” he pointed out.
“I don’t write as many children’s songs as I used to although I did put out a book a couple of years ago--it’s still in print, called Mooses Come Walking.” The book was illustrated by his friend Alice who is THE Alice of restaurant fame. “It’s still going strong,” he said proudly. “So we have all done some work for children.”
Family and music are the themes that define the Guthries. “We have all done some work for children. As a matter of fact the whole family got together for the first time back around 10 or 15 years ago and we put out a record that my father and mother had begun to create. It was a project that they never finished. And we finished it and we put it out,” he said. “Not just with my kids and some of their kids but with my brother and his son and my sister and her daughter and son. So we’ve worked some family stuff a long time ago. This is not new for us. That record was called Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs. It was primarily recorded and written for kids about 2, 3 years old. That was the first time we really got together as a family and not only that, we incorporated the voice of my father singing some of these songs so it’s my father’s generation, mine, my kids’ and my grandkids’ – four generations on that one record."
"We’re trying to recreate that spirit although for an older crowd on the tour that’s coming up. We’ll have some recordings of my father, even my mom, so there’ll be a huge time span that we’re trying to invent into a two hour show.”
That tour will begin in October. “They’ll all be with us,” he says. “Obviously some of them are too young to do much but we will incorporate them all in the show and the major portion of the show will be handled by me and Abe, Krishna is 18, he’s a great player, and Johnny and Sarah Lee.”
He continued, “The small ones will make an appearance at some point but we may have to get some cattle prods. We’ll get them out there just to bounce around at the end but most of the work will be handled by the older ones.”
Humor is another thread that runs through the Guthrie family music. “My family has a pretty good sense of humor. If you listen to the records that have come out so far there’s just some wonderful stuff that puts a smile on your face. My daughter Cathy sings with Amy Nelson who is Willie’s daughter. And they have a little duo called Folk Uke. And they are very funny. You cannot play their stuff for your kids, though.”
During the spring and summer, Arlo celebrated two very important events. In May, his lifelong friend, Pete Seeger, celebrated his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in front of a packed house of 21,000 people. “It was so crazy that I didn’t even get to say hi to Pete until the end of the show.” There were between 60 and 70 artists backstage including Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens and Roger McGuinn. “It was such a fabulous event!” Arlo said excitedly. “There’s Pete up on the stage leading everybody in songs; it was amazing!”
Arlo and Pete toured together for about 30 years starting in the early ‘70s. About ten years ago Pete told Arlo, “I don’t know if I want to continue doing these big shows. My voice isn’t what it used to be. I can’t play like I used to play.” Arlo replied, “Pete, the hearing of the people ain’t what it used to be; it shouldn’t be a problem.” Last year, they performed at Carnegie Hall with Pete’s grandson, Tao and Arlo’s daughter, Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny.
The next major event was the return to Bethel Woods to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. This time he performed with the Boston Pops. He said the biggest difference between this show and Woodstock was that he had brought a bigger band with him this time.
Looking forward Arlo is a typical grandparent. He feels concern about the issues that will affect his grandchildren’s future.
“It’s not a political thing. We have conservatives and liberals on both sides of all of these things. This is not a democrat republican thing. It’s people that are comfortable with the way things are going as we get through this era of fear when people are still afraid. And that’s where the dividing line is,” he explained. “It’s the same line around the world. It doesn’t matter where it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Middle East or in Africa, there are some people who are trying to take advantage of their neighbors and their friends and their families and others. And there are some people who are just trying to figure out how to get along together. That’s the group we like to think of ourselves as being. If I could speak for the whole family I think that everybody would agree with me that we’re aligned with just the regular people.”
Arlo’s initial recognition may have been linked to his famous father but music is like blood that runs through the Guthrie veins. There was music in the family before him and there will be more to follow.
“It’s not even just my father’s legacy. In some ways it was passed along from his mother when she was singing Indian songs so it’s inter-generational. It doesn’t start with Woody Guthrie and it doesn’t end with the youngest crowd today. It’s just something we like doing.”