Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 5, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
  Contributing Editors
Mark Goldfarb
Phil Nixon
Bernard Dubé
Robert Rotondo
  Music Editor
Emanuel Pordes
  Arts Editor
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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  Noam Chomsky
Robert Fisk
Michael Moore
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Mark Kingwell
Arundhati Roy
Naomi Klein
Jean Baudrillard
John Lavery
David Solway
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein


interviewed by Bernard Dubé


© Bernard DubéI watched the film Woodstock four times when it came out in 1970. In the film, Arlo Guthrie is the one who exuberantly announces on stage how many people are at Woodstock, ending with, “. . . New York Freeway is closed, man!” He sings Coming Into Los Angeles, a song that was emblematic of the youth culture of the time. It endures in popularity even today mostly because it is just a good song. Accompanied by his son Abe, he sang it before a packed audience at this year's Ottawa Folkfest. If you have ever attended an Arlo Guthrie performance, you know how effortlessly he captivates his audience. I loved his performance, but the unprejudiced fact is the people loved it too, just as they still love Arlo after all these years.

Woodstock is a long way away now, but Arlo continues to have an impact. It came as no surprise that many people in the Folkfest audience were of his generation: ‘hippies’ from the 1960s who revolutionized the culture of their day. But there were also many younger people in attendance who know Arlo only by his history and came to see the man for themselves. When I stopped at a friend’s home at the end of the Folkfest, I was surprised that her fifteen year old son, who had heard I had recently interviewed the legend, wanted to know everything about him. His response to Arlo’s music was limited to the typical vocabulary of the young: “wow” and “cool,” but he was sincerely impressed. And while that 15 year old may not be representative of his generation, he bears witness that Arlo Guthrie is still an event.

Because Arlo’s music continues to speak to us, I will not try to define what he represents. He is simply among those exceptional artists who helped define the America of the 1960s.

© Bernard DubéSome facts of his life are worth retelling. He is the son of Woody Guthrie, songwriter and activist who traveled about the United States, risking his own well-being to help organize the first labor unions and who authored the still popular song, This Land is Your Land. Arlo’s most notable songs, the ones we of his generation remember fondly, are Alice’s Restaurant and Coming Into Los Angeles. Alice’s Restaurant set a musical precedent in being the only song of its length (18 plus minutes) to be regularly played on popular radio. Today, the song is still broadcast every Thanksgiving in parts of the United States (the story in the song takes place on Thanksgiving). Arlo also starred and sang in the film Alice’s Restaurant. In 1972, he was asked to sing Steve Goodman’s, The City of New Orleans, which is now regarded as a classic.


Bernard Dubé: Do you see yourself as a folksinger?

ARLO: I just like playing music and being with friends and family and just refine the way I lay my music.

Bernard Dubé: What do you see as the role and place of folk music today?

ARLO: All music is folk music. Every culture has its music of the people. Jazz and Blues are examples. And I really like the idea of all these different cultural expressions in music.

That comment about all music being folk music set me thinking, because it makes a lot more sense to say to say all music is folk music than to say all music is Classical music, or Blues, or Jazz, or, Rock.

It’s a sad fact of life that the record conglomerates influence what is played on the radio, and that there is a real danger the world’s music is beginning to sound homogenized. But thanks to the Internet and new recording technologies, the individual can make a difference.

Bernard Dubé: Do you think that the Hippie culture of the 60s has influenced people’s reaction and readiness to question war today?

ARLO: No. The hippie culture of the 60s grew out of the people of that time just the way people’s reactions to the war in Iraq today has motivated people to express their feelings now. And today you don’t have to do much to help. If you take all the battles ever fought and compare their effect to what a single individual can do now with the technology we have, you can see that the individual can make a difference. Today, people are using that technology to express their views on the war. Their feelings come from their experience and their culture.

Bernard Dubé: When you look at human history, it seems as if it is a history of one super power after another. There doesn’t seem much hope that it will ever change.

ARLO: You know you have to respect your enemies. One day they may be the ones who are stronger. The present administration doesn’t seem to understand that. The United States is the world super power now but it isn’t always going to be that way. The next super power may be China so you want to be sure that when that happens they remember to respect us.

Bernard Dubé: Why do you care so much about promoting local culture?

ARLO: We all need to appreciate our own local cultures. People need to express themselves and be heard and when they do, they feel good about themselves, and we develop greater respect and appreciation for each other – I see it as a sort of global dance. I think the difficulties between people has to do with differences in people’s local culture – the fear of the other culture and their mutual lack of understanding. So, that’s why I think its important for people to keep their local, separate cultures alive. Expressing themselves in the music of their culture is an important way to help bridge the gaps between us all.

I remember when I was in Japan and met this young man who was doing an Elvis thing. I asked him why he was imitating Elvis. Why aren’t you using the music of your own culture to say what you want to say?

One thing I really like is that in Hawaii they are playing Hawaiian music now on popular radio along with the usual program of contemporary music. Last year I decided I needed a new jacket – I just needed one. But every jacket I tried on was made in China. I couldn’t find a jacket that was made by a company in my area. So, I didn’t get a jacket.

Bernard Dubé: Are you familiar with Gordon Lightfoot’s music?.

ARLO: Oh yeah, I love Gordon’s music. You know, me, Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt all got dropped on the same night by Warner Brothers when disco was the fad.

But getting dumped by Warners hasn’t stopped Arlo. Given his comments on how technology has made it easier for people to make a difference it aught not be surprising to learn that Arlo launched his own record label. It’s called Rising Sun Records.

Bernard Dubé: Is there anything you have done later in life that the younger you could have never predicted?

ARLO: For about seven years I’ve been playing at Disneyland during their Flower and Garden Festival. They invite me to play there because I am from the ‘Flower’ generation. They used to have a large sign on the stage that read ‘Peace and Love.’ About two years ago when the Iraq thing was starting up they took out the word Peace. I asked them why the word Peace was removed and they said it was too controversial. I said you don’t expect me to be quiet about that, do you? They said, no. But then Disney has a Gay Pride parade every year which a lot of people don’t know.

I have played with the Boston and Dallas philharmonic orchestras. They wanted me to wear a tuxedo. I couldn’t stand the suit. It made me feel like a stuffed teddy bear. So we eventually worked out a way for me to wear something I was more comfortable in.

Bernard Dubé: Have you ever thought of turning Alice’s Restaurant into a rock opera?

Now Arlo is quite a gregarious person who can speak at length on whatever question you pose. But on this question, he sort of froze in his seat, then jerking his head back sharply and looking away from me, said: No.

Bernard Dubé: That’s it?

ARLO: That’s it.

© Bernard Dubé
Arlo has never stopped doing what he does. He just keeps making it bigger. And he continues to take an interest in local cultures around the world. Not long ago, when the Ottawa Folkfest was in danger of collapsing, Arlo agreed to perform there; and it was his appearance that saved the festival and helped ensure its survival.

He purchased and converted the old Church, which was one of the set locations in Alice’s Restaurant, into a non-profit, inter-faith foundation which supports local cultures around the world, in particular those cultures that are living under the threat of extinction, such as in Tibet. The Church was appropriately renamed the Guthrie Center in honor of his parents.

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