interviewed by Bernard Dubé
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dubé: Do you see yourself as a folksinger?
I just like playing music and being with friends and family
and just refine the way I lay my music.
Dubé: What do you see as the role and place of folk music
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.
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,
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.
Dubé: Do you think that the Hippie culture of the 60s
has influenced people’s reaction and readiness to question
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.
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.
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.
Dubé: Why do you care so much about promoting local culture?
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
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?
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.
Dubé: Are you familiar with Gordon Lightfoot’s
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.
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.
Dubé: Is there anything you have done later in life that
the younger you could have never predicted?
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.
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
Dubé: Have you ever thought of turning Alice’s
Restaurant into a rock opera?
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.
Dubé: That’s it?
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.
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.
insights into Arlo Guthrie the singer-legend and social activist,
visit website at : http://www.arlo.net