After 50 years, American folk singer is still touring ‘our land’
BY GREG GARDNER
Legendary folksinger, songwriter and Sebastian resident Arlo Guthrie says he will continue to go on the road with his band and family until his voice won’t allow him to sing.
“Nobody retires in folk music,”Guthrie says in the dining room of his home overlooking the Indian River. “Pete Seeger died at 94 and we did a show together three months before he passed away.”
Guthrie, at 72, has slowed down somewhat but still spends eight to nine months a year touring with band members who’ve been with him since the 1970s. The days are long gone when Guthrie actually drove the tour bus to a different venue every night.
One of the longest touring folk singers in American history, Guthrie is best known for his songs Alice’s Restaurant and City of New Orleans. The son of one of America’s premier folk singers, Woody Guthrie, he always plays his father’s most famous anthem, This Land is your Land.
The younger Guthrie knew he was destined to play music, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a professional entertainer. “When I was 19 my mother advised, ‘If you want to be an entertainer you’ll have to have a Plan B because audiences can be fickle. They can like you one day, and forget you the next,’” he says. “But, it occurred to me, if I have a Plan B, I’ll do just that if the going gets tough. So I ignored her advice. And it did get tough a few times. With no alternatives, we simply pushed through.”
Two years later in 1969, Guthrie was thrust into the world spotlight after a performance at Woodstock with Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and the rest of the historic line-up.
Though Guthrie admits he really doesn’t remember much of the concert, he does recall with great fondness the people he performed with during the 10th anniversary of Woodstock European Tour.
“It was a rich experience, for the Woodstock veterans to finally get to know each other while riding on the same bus for a month,” Guthrie says.
CARVING A NICHE
On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Guthrie recalls, “I wanted to play at the original stage-site for free and keep the spirit of the event intact. We showed up to play and there was no stage, no sound system. But my daughter persuaded me to make a day of it. So I played Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ where the stage had been 50 years before and then we walked back up the hill to the stage they’d built at a different location. We had a good time despite the circumstances.”
Guthrie has carved his niche in the music industry by touring the country, playing American folk music. His production company is located on “The Farm” in Berkshire County, Mass.
Guthrie “purposely” left the music industry in the mid-1980s and started Rising Son Records which has produced more than 30 albums and four children’s books.
“The days of three months in the studio to make a record are gone. No one sells records or CDs anymore. Spotify and other sources hardly pay anything. Decades ago, if people liked a song, they would buy the record. Now they can just buy the song. Times have changed.”
When Rising Son Records began, Guthrie was able to retrieve almost everything in his catalog from Warner Brothers — a very rare occurrence.
“In addition to the new records we were producing, I had an entire catalog available, which made us much more favorable to the distribution companies. That made a difference. It’s too easy to sell away your rights to get your name out there. And the recording industry preys on young people that way. There will always be the one in a million who makes a fortune, but most people don’t last long in what’s left of the music industry.”
Guthrie considers himself a “legacy” musician with one song that has lasted the test of time.
“I’d be surprised if I was remembered, but Alice’s Restaurant has become a song associated with Thanksgiving and for that reason, I think, it will be around for a long time,” he says. The song was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002 and the album was added to The National Archives last year.
“Music is like another language and it is a wonderful language to know,” Guthrie says. “I’ve been all over the world. You can sit down with anyone and play music. You might not be able to say a word, but you can play music together for hours.”
Guthrie gives back by participating in fund-raisers, benefit concerts and charitable events. The Guthrie family in 1991 purchased the Old Trinity Church near Stockbridge, Mass., which was the location for the movie Alice’s Restaurant. It was renamed The Guthrie Center in honor of his parents, Woody and Marjorie Guthrie.
“We continue their mission of making the world a little better for everyone,” Guthrie says. The Center provides free food, education, legal aid, yoga and regularly scheduled worship.
“It remains the focal point of my charitable work. Every week most all of these services are made available to anyone who needs them.”
Annual events like the “Historic Garbage Trail Walk” raise funds to help families deal with the burden of Huntington’s Disease, which took his father’s life in 1967.
But the Guthrie tribe is what keeps him going. His son, Abe, is the on-stage musical director and a keyboard player since the age of 3. First daughter, Cathy, performs with Amy Nelson, folksinger Willie’s daughter. Second daughter, Annie, runs Rising Son Records and performs her own gigs. Youngest daughter, Sarah Lee, toured with her father for more than 15 years and is currently writing and performing her own material.
“And all their kids play too,” Guthrie says. “It was my father’s dream to have a large family and tour the country singing and performing together. He never got to do that, but we’ve kept his dream alive. The last performance the family did together was at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Nov. 30, 2019. I have no doubt my family will keep the tradition alive and well long after I’m gone.”