Arlo Guthrie celebrates his 74th birthday today. He officially retired from touring in 2020. But before that — in 2018 — Local Spins chatted with him prior to a show at Kalamazoo’s State Theatre.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2018, Local Spins interviewed both Arlo Guthrie and his daughter, Sarah Lee, before they made a stop in Kalamazoo as part of the “Alice’s Restaurant” 50th anniversary tour. Guthrie suffered a stroke the following year and has since retired from touring. To celebrate his 74th birthday today, Local Spins revisits that interview.
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A little over a half-century ago, and a dozen years before Sarah Lee Guthrie was even born, her father, Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody), recorded the time-tested classic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” — a narrative song based on the now infamous events that occurred during a 1965 Thanksgiving trip made by Arlo to visit his friend Alice Brock and her husband Ray.
A movie adaptation of the song, directed by Arthur Penn, was released in 1969, just a couple days after Guthrie performed at Woodstock. Now, “Back by Popular Demand” and just a few weeks shy of Thanksgiving 2018, the 50th Anniversary “Alice’s Restaurant Tour” weaved its way across the country. (Watch “Alice’s Restaurant” below.)
The tour made a November stop at the Kalamazoo State Theatre as Arlo performed his famous 16-minute-plus song and many others with musical support from Sarah Lee, a member of the third generation of what may turn out to be a long line of famous Guthrie folk singers.
Local Spins writer Ryan Boldrey had the opportunity to separately interview both Arlo and Sarah Lee Guthrie. They talked politics, the family business, the importance of folk music and, of course, the Alice’s Restaurant Tour.
Local Spins: It seems the “50th Anniversary Tour” of “Alice’s Restaurant” has been going on for a few years now, what keeps you going? The audience? Today’s political climate? A sense of greater purpose in bringing people and generations together?
Arlo: Actually, this is a fairly new tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the movie coming out in 1969. We did another 50th tour (three years ago) to celebrate the actual events that took place in 1965, but this is completely different. Obviously, we’re still talking about Alice’s Restaurant, so that part is the same, and there are songs we continually do no matter what the tour is called. We created this show very recently, and we’re still working on it, but as long as people still want to hear it, I’m willing to keep doing it, well, mostly. And yes, of course in this political climate, having suspicions about authority come in handy.
Local Spins: Speaking of the political climate, I read somewhere that you once said, “Everyone has a responsibility to not only tolerate another person’s point of view, but also to accept it eagerly as a challenge to your own understanding and express those challenges in terms of serving other people.” How relevant is that quote still today as this country becomes more and more divisive?
Arlo: I don’t remember saying that, yet I read all kinds of things people say I’ve said that I don’t remember saying. But, if you’re asking me if tolerance is still a good idea, the answer is yes. A lot of people just like hearing themselves speak or seeing themselves write. Sometimes you have to figure out the difference between someone who has something worth hearing, and someone who just enjoys talking.
Local Spins: How hard is it to gracefully straddle that line as a folk musician in terms of self-expression and attempting to bring people together as opposed to further dividing them by taking a hard stance in your own convictions?
Arlo: I don’t know about being a folk musician, but just as a human being, it’s probably good to remember that your allies tomorrow may have been your enemies yesterday. So, I try to keep it civil and respectful, even if I have to disagree from time to time.
Local Spins: As the torch continues to get passed down through the generations in the Guthrie family, could you elaborate a little on how meaningful it is for you to share the stage with Sarah Lee, as well how you view her evolution as a folk singer and someone who has carved out her own path over the past 20 years?
Arlo: My wife and I had four kids, all of whom ended up playing music. I’ve enjoyed being a dad when it comes to this stuff. I love that they’ve all taken different musical paths and are out there doing their thing. And they all have kids of their own who understand the language of music. It’s like passing on a disease. Sarah Lee began working with me over 20 years ago, and she keeps getting better at it. I define better at it as being someone who can entertain an audience for an entire evening. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t recommend it to most people. But, my kids are even more stubborn than I am, so there’s no stopping them now.
Local Spins: I’ve talked with Sarah Lee about how she’s carried on the Guthrie name and tradition, perhaps with no intention at first. How did you find yourself in the position of doing the same, following along in Woody’s shoes while heading down your own path?
Arlo: My father had a professional career for about 15 years during which he wrote most all of his songs and recorded his music. Nobody in their right mind, including me, would purposely try to squeeze into a decade and a half what he was able to do, and not many have. I, on the other hand, have been doing this for over 50 years. So naturally, I see myself as not having had to be so pedal to the metal. It’s not his shoes that I think of, but his pace. He worked as if he knew he had only a limited time. I figured I could take it a little more easy, on myself, my family, my friends and the rest of the world. And yet, I’ve tried to keep the same spirit, philosophy, and sensibilities going in my work, that I learned from him.
Local Spins: Do you ever get tired of doing “Alice’s” at every show?
Arlo: Nope. I get tired of being on the road now that I’m past 70, but I don’t get tired of playing any particular songs. And if I do, I just quit playing them until I miss them.
Local Spins: So Sarah Lee, how did you begin as a punk rock teenager and wind up following in the family tradition as a folk singer?
Sarah Lee: It was really Johnny’s influence on me. We were playing country/folk rock, that’s how we generified ourselves. But it wasn’t until later, say 10 years into my career of playing music that I began appreciating the music that I grew up around like Pete Seeger or Ramblin’ Jack (Elliot) or even my grandfather (Woody Guthrie). It was really a combination of things at that point … going over to Europe and realizing what the Guthrie family meant to people all over the world and slowly realizing what I could do and what I could represent. I began seeing how important folk music is, especially in today’s political climate. I don’t want to lose that. I want to make sure our next generations know that music is not just for entertainment, but that it brings people together and helps movements of people build and rebuild community.
Local Spins: You mention the political climate that we are in, what do you feel your role and responsibility is as a folk singer in this climate?
Sarah Lee: As folk singers, we have so much to do now to remind people to use their voices, and to join their voices together and unite them. This is what Pete did in the Civil Rights Movement and Joan Baez did and still does. I look to them for how to act and what to do in these times. So yeah, I do feel a great sense of responsibility now to bring people together through our collective voices, but it doesn’t mean you have to be chanting at political rallies. One of my favorite quotes of Woody’s is “right wing, left wing, chicken wing,” I like that a lot and the idea of bringing people together and not dividing them. It’s hard though, especially in times when it’s “this is just so wrong,” and “how can you feel this way” and “how could you accept both sides.”
Local Spins: You’ve mentioned your grandfather a couple times now. He and your father, without question have both played significant roles in the history of American folk music, and you aren’t the only “third-generation Guthrie” now involved in music. Are there more Guthries in the musical pipeline? Someone ready to take the torch?
Sarah Lee: Oh goodness, I don’t know. There’s definitely another generation doing it, but who knows what is going to happen in the eyes of the world. I don’t pressure them at all. I actually go the opposite way and I think my dad used to do that with us too. He’d say, ‘Don’t Do it! Don’t be a musician! You don’t want this!’ And of course, we all became musicians (laughs). … As far as my kids, because I toured with Johnny, they were all raised on the road. They feel it so deep that it is like second nature to them. My 16-year-old is pushing it away as far as possible, because she is carving out her own identity, whereas my 11-year-old just played a show with me in Oklahoma. She loves playing the ukulele. Abe’s kids are both super talented. He has a daughter at Ithaca College. Her voice is better than all of ours put together so if she decides to go for it, watch out. And his son plays eight days a week up in Vermont.
VIDEO: Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant” (Live)
PHOTO GALLERY: Arlo Guthrie & Sarah Lee at State Theatre
Photos by Derek Ketchum