Passing along a heritage of music
Growing up, Arlo Guthrie had his future mapped out. He looked forward to living his life as a forest ranger, sitting up in a tower, alone, watching for fires. His vision of a solitary life turned 180 degrees in the late ’60s. Instead of looking out at the trees, Arlo found that the success of Alice’s Restaurant had placed him on center stage.
“Four things happened in 1969,” Arlo says. “That was a big year. 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. All within the last three or four months of ’69. We’re still doing songs from Woodstock, still living on the farm, I’m still married to the same wife-but we don’t watch the movie anymore,” he laughs.
The Guthries-four children and seven grandchildren-are a very close family. As 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, Jackie. 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 Jackie who’s kept the entire family together over all these years.” All the children and grandchildren-except for Cathy, who lives in Austin, Texas-live within a few miles of one another “in the farthermost reaches of Massachusetts up in the hills.”
Arlo has no problem recounting the names and ages of his entire clan. “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, writes songs. “We’re involved in different things because obviously we’re all different people. We don’t have a herd mentality when it comes to social consciousness. Everybody’s very individual.
“Our songs-my father’s songs and my songs-are not all about social consciousness. There are love songs, broken-heart songs, got-drunk-once-too-many-times songs, lost-my-dog songs….
“Sarah Lee and Johnny Irion, her husband, have just released an album of children’s songs [https://www.sarahleeandjohnny.com/] because they think that the commercial varieties 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, little kids, that is absolutely wonderful. Smithsonian Folk Waves is putting it out; it’s like PBS or NPR was putting it out-not your commercial variety.
“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-Mooses Come Walking [https://www.amazon.com/Mooses-Come-Walking-Arlo-Guthrie/dp/0811810518].” [Mooses was illustrated by his friend Alice Brock, who is the Alice.]
“We have all done work for children. The whole family got together 10 or 15 years ago and put out a record that my father and mother had begun to create, a project they’d never finished, called Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs [https://www.amazon.com/Woodys-20-Grow-Big-Songs/dp/B000002MFB]. We put it out with my kids and some of their kids and my brother and his son and my sister and her daughter and son. That was the first time we got together as a family. In that album we incorporated the voice of my father singing-so it’s my father’s generation, mine, my kids’ and my grandkids’-four generations on one record. We’re trying to recreate that spirit, although for an older crowd, on the tour that’s coming up [https://www.arlo.net/]. We’ll have some recordings of my father, even my mom, so there’ll be a huge time span that we’re trying to insert into a two-hour show.”
That tour begins in October. “All the kids will be with us. The major portion will be handled by me and Abe; Krishna is 18-he’s a great player; and Johnny and Sarah Lee. 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.”
Humor is threaded through the Guthrie family music. “My family has a good sense of humor. My daughter Cathy sings with Amy Nelson, Willie’s daughter. They have a little duo called Folk Uke. They are very funny. You can’t play their stuff for your kids, though.”
When we talked with Arlo in late May, he had just celebrated the 90th birthday of his lifelong friend Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden in front of a packed house of 21,000 people. Nearly 70 artists were backstage, including Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens and Roger McGuinn. Pete was up on the stage leading everybody in songs.
“It was so crazy [that night] that I didn’t even get to say hi to Pete until the end of the show.”
Arlo and Pete toured together for nearly 30 years. About 10 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,” and Arlo replied, “Pete, the hearing of the people ain’t what it used to be. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
Looking forward, Arlo is a typical grandparent, concerned 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 the same dividing line around the world. 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 then, there’s the group we-the whole family-like to think of ourselves as belonging to: people who are just trying to figure out how to get along together.”