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Arlo Guthrie pays homage to Woody

Guthrie Family Legacy Tour, April 6, 2008

The Province

by John P. McLaughlin

Woody Guthrie was a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood materialization of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad from the dust-bowl epic The Grapes of wrath. Except this Tom Joad fought his fight against oppressive boss men and governments with a song and a guitar with the legend “This Machine Kills Fascists” slashed across its top.

The night he saw the movie version of Steinbeck’s classic, Guthrie wrote his famous “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” He even named his second son Joady. Woody Guthrie was a hobo’s hobo, a rambling, freight-hopping, working-man’s organizer and general agitator when agitating could get you thrown in jail with your head busted wide open quick as you could say “Bolshevik.” He was a hero, back when the word actually meant something.

When his first-born son, Arlo – named after the protagonist in a series of Swiss books – emerged as a singer-songwriter in the latter 1960s, that last name of his carried a lot of weight in the left-leaning folk-music world.

Young Arlo had grown up with his daddy’s friends like Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and had learned a thing or two.

He was best-known for the 18-minute, 20-second narrative “Alice’s Restaurant,” which told the tale of a littering infraction’s impact on his draft hearing. It was funny stuff but packed a solid punch to the establishment’s solar plexus, a fine turn for the young Guthrie boy.

Now, a full 40 years later, a 60-year-old Arlo is at the tail end of his year-long Guthrie Family Legacy tour that celebrates the roots that have nourished him so richly.


Accompanied by, among others, his son Abe, daughter Sarah Lee, her husband Johnny Irion and their four-year-old daughter Olivia on ukulele, they are indeed about the father’s business. It’s comforting to think Woody is looking down at it all and smiling but, truth be told, he’s probably too busy being a pain in the butt wherever he is. He always was.

“Absolutely,” says Arlo. “And not just politically, I mean personally. But he did have a few great friends. It might have been volatile but he really had people who absolutely were connected with him on all kinds of levels, guys like Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Leadbelly or Pete Seeger. They had a lifetime of experiences with him, the Second World War, the Depression, the struggle for regular working people. That’s a whole lot.”

Arlo does remember the little, wiry, tightly wound Woody of legend (“except nobody’s a legend in their own family, of course”) but he was about eight years old when his dad first went to hospital suffering from incurable Huntington’s Chorea. He’d been among family and friends visiting every week, sitting around the lounge or out under a tree with banjos and guitars, singing the old songs.

Woody also managed to come to Arlo’s bar mitzvah – Arlo’s mother was Jewish (and his teacher was young rabbi Meir Kahane, later the ultra-ultra-orthodox Zionist assassinated  in 1990), but he grew up essentially fatherless. In fact, his parents were divorced because, he says, the veteran’s department wouldn’t pay for Woody’s care if he was married. Nevertheless, Arlo has a powerful and inclusive sense of family.

“Our family is made up of biological family but we also have a very large extended family,” he says. “Pete Seeger is family, you know what I mean? I worked 30 years with Pete. That’s a long time.

“And a lot of the families who would come to hear us are also family.

“There is a very large family of people with connections to each other that come to our shows and it’s nice to see that their kids and grandkids are coming and the songs that nurture that large family are still relevant, they’re part of the history of who we are and where we came from. We wanted to show that most doing this family tour.”

Sat Apr 5, 2008