Legendary Singer-Songwriter Arlo Guthrie

The legendary singer-songwriter discusses his famous father, road tour, and 50-year anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant”.

Arlo Guthrie has been known to generations as a prolific songwriter, social commentator, master storyteller, actor and activist. Born in Coney Island, New York in 1947, Arlo is the eldest son of Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Company and founder of The Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, and America’s most beloved singer/writer/ philosopher/artist Woody Guthrie. Arlo has become an iconic figure in folk music in his own right with a distinguished and varied career spanning over fifty years.

In addition to his musical career, Guthrie is an accomplished actor with numerous television appearances. Arlo has had recurring roles in two major network television series (The Byrds of Paradise and Relativity), and feature films, the aforementioned Alice’s Restaurant and Roadside Prophets (1992). Arlo is the author of four children’s books and a distinguished photographer, showing his works in selected galleries.

Inspired by his parents’ activism, Arlo bought the old Trinity Church (“the” church) that is now home to The Guthrie Center and The Guthrie Foundation. Named for his parents, The Guthrie Center is a not-for-profit interfaith church foundation dedicated to providing a wide range of local and international services. The Guthrie Foundation is a separate not-for-profit educational organization that addresses issues such as the environment, health care, cultural preservation and educational exchange. In 2009 Arlo was awarded the ASCAP Foundation Champion Award for making a difference through social action on behalf of worthwhile causes and demonstrating exceptional efforts in humanitarianism.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with legendary folk artist, Arlo Guthrie, the son of America’s most famous troubadour, Woody Guthrie. He joins us to reflect on 50 years of “Alice’s Restaurant” and his current “Running Down the Road” tour.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Arlo Guthrie in just a moment.

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Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Arlo Guthrie to this program. He’s been a leading counter-cultural voice in America for more than 50 years since his debut album, “Alice’s Restaurant”. The son of America’s most famous troubadour, Woody Guthrie, Arlo is in the midst of his latest “Running Down the Road” tour and we’re delighted that he took time off from the tour to stop by the studio. It is an honor, sir…

Arlo Guthrie: My pleasure.

Tavis: To have you on this great program.

Guthrie: Thank you, thank you.

Tavis: Let me start with this because I was just [laugh] tickled when I came across this. So his father, Woody, wrote a song called “Old Man Trump” — yes, that Trump — about his racist landlord, Fred Trump, who happened to be, as you know, Donald’s father.

One of the lines in the song, and I quote, “I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate he stirred up in that blood pot of human hearts when he drawed that color line here at his Beach Haven family project.” So you’re father lived in a Trump building.

Guthrie: Me too. That’s where I grew up.

Tavis: That’s where you grew up [laugh]. And your father had something to say about Old Man Trump.

Guthrie: Yes, he did.

Tavis: What do you make of that coincidence all of these years later?

Guthrie: Well, you know, I have mixed feelings about it because, first of all, I get a lot of stuff that says, “Oh, Arlo Guthrie, he’s just like his dad”, you know. So I understand what that’s like to have somebody place you in a guilt by association.

So when my sister, Nora, found these lyrics, she asked me if I wanted to do something. I said no. There’s enough to dislike about the president without having to go back to his dad [laugh].

Tavis: But somebody put this to music, though, yes?

Guthrie: Yeah. My son-in-law, Johnny Irion, did a really good cut of it, and some others have done that as well. So I’m happy they did it. It’s just not my thing.

Tavis: It’s not your thing. So since you went there, how have you  managed all these years being the son of Woody Guthrie? Finding your own artistic…

Guthrie: Well, you know what? I came to the conclusion at some point when I was very young that I was my own person. I just knew that somehow, and maybe it’s because there were so many people that used to come to our house when I was a little kid.

And they would dress like my dad. They would talk like my dad. They would write songs like my dad. They would do all of these things, but they weren’t him, you know.

And at some point I realized that even though you might admire somebody and you might draw from some inspiration from them, you can’t be them. And it’s no less true for me than it is for anybody else. So I always thought the kind of things we’re doing is the kind of things my dad dreamed of.

You know, I’ve taken my family, my wife and kids and all that, out on the road. We’ve done tours together and the grandkids. That was the dream that my dad and mom had. They never got to do it, so I get to do stuff that they dreamed about, and it’s not the same as pretending to be him, but you can’t run away from it, you know.

Tavis: But in the midst of all of that, Arlo, how did you find your own voice?

Guthrie: Mostly by accident. I didn’t want to be a singer. I didn’t want to be a songwriter. I didn’t want to be an entertainer. I wanted to be a forest ranger and I didn’t like being around large crowds of people. I thought, yeah, man, forestry!

I’ll sit on a mountain in Montana or something and wait for a fire every couple of years. You know, then every night in my dreams, I wanted to sit on the back porch and play music with some friends. I actually went to school in Billings to do just that. And it just didn’t work out.

Tavis: Yeah. You got pulled in anyway.

Guthrie: This life is a karmic disaster [laugh]. What are you gonna do? So I didn’t mean to be me.

Tavis: Right.

Guthrie: But at some point, I realized that I was dealing with something that was bigger than me.

Tavis: When did you stop resisting the call, the vocation?

Guthrie: I left Montana in the fall of 1965 and I went to visit some friends that owned an old church and got involved taking out their garbage. That was ’65. The tale I told about it sort of took about a year to put together. So “Alice’s Restaurant” took about a year and then I performed it in the summer of 1967 at the Newport Folk Festival and I remember I wasn’t scheduled to play there. I went there with my guitar like all the other people.

But then at some point, they said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to put you on the main stage. You gotta sing that song, man.” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah.” So I remember Pete Seeger and some others saying, “You know, he’s a young kid. He may not be able to handle this, you know, crowd out there.”

You know, it’s like thousands and thousands people. So they said, “At the end of the song, he has a little part that goes if one person does it, if two people do it, if 50 people do it, so let’s just go out. We’ll send out, you know, some friends.”

So at the end of the thing, everybody who had performed at that festival is out there singing the song with me. I got back from that and it was like a switch had gone off. It was like, okay, the old days are over. My dreams are shot. We’re doing something else now.

Tavis: [Laugh] And, bam, there you have it. 50 years later, “Alice’s Restaurant” has just been rereleased. It’s amazing how these stories come to be, man. 50 years since you did that.

Guthrie: I can’t even remember — the only thing I remember about the original was that we recorded it in a studio sort of like this, you know, but with a live audience. So there’s no take two, there’s no let’s do it again. There’s no let’s fix that.

Everybody that had been invited to that studio recording had already heard the song. It was supposed to be a funny song. They’d already heard it 100 times, so there was nothing funny about it to them. And every time I hear that original record, I hear that audience going… It drives me crazy.

Tavis: And yet, as I said, you couldn’t stop it. Was it Victor Hugo who said that thee is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come? When it came, you couldn’t resist it. You had to own it, man.

Guthrie: No. I remember dealing with it and my mom telling me, you know, “Arlo, if you really want to do this, you better learn to do something else because the audience is fickle. They can like you one day and not like you the next day.”

I remember thinking about that and I said, “Nope. My mom is wrong. If I know how to do something else and the times get bad, I’ll do something else.” So I refused to do anything else. I refused to learn anything else. So that was it…

Tavis: You didn’t have no fallback.

Guthrie: And when the times got bad, and they do, you know, from to time, there was nothing else to do. And I just kept doing it, so here we are [laugh].

Tavis: Kind of like me. I ain’t got but one talent [laugh] and that’s questionable on some nights.

Guthrie: You got a good one.

Tavis: I appreciate it. Tell me about your friendship with Pete Seeger because you mentioned him earlier in this conversation. So it’s not enough that your daddy is Woody Guthrie. Then you’re hanging out and become best friends with Pete Seeger for year after year after year.

Guthrie: I remember the first time I went to visit Pete and his wife, Toshi. I was probably five or six years old. And we were living in Queens at that time, in New York, and we went out to their place. Pete had built a log cabin on a high bluff over the Hudson River. I just said, “Whoa! This is like Davy Crockett stuff or something!”, you know.

So we got there and I was really excited and I remember my mom saying, “Okay, Arlo, go out and play with the other kids.” I wasn’t hanging out with Pete Seeger. I was hanging out with his kids like any family, you know.

But over the years, I’m thinking maybe in the mid 60s to the late 60s, that time when there were so many people out on the streets, so many things going on. There was end the war, ban the bomb, change lingerie, do this and all that, whatever it was.

And Pete was always there, and you could hear that banjo of his from blocks away. I remember walking through Washington, D.C. and I could hear his banjo and him, you know, singing. There was no other instrument like that.

So I met up with him at all of these different things and then, in the late 60s, we started doing these annual shows together at Carnegie Hall in New York around Thanksgiving. And we did that. The last one we did together was just a few months before he passed away. He was 94.

He couldn’t even walk out on the stage. He had these two canes and he was getting out there and that audience wouldn’t let him do anything. They were just up. I mean, I’ve never heard an audience just cheer and clap and yell for five, ten minutes. It kept going. We couldn’t even get the show going.

Tavis: What did you see? What did you sense in that moment of appreciation for Pete Seeger?

Guthrie: That Pete was right. There’s a power in music that most people underestimate and you wouldn’t know it really by what you like. It’s what you don’t like that shows you how powerful it is. In the old Soviet Union, there was pieces by Beethoven that were banned. Why is that? There’s no words in there. But there’s a spirit in there that comes out.

And unless you’re the kind of person who says, “I don’t want to hear that” or “That’s dangerous”, when you’re threatened by something, that’s how you know the power of it, not when you’re just sitting back having a cocktail on a beach somewhere and there’s music playing in the background.

That won’t get your attention, but when something threatens you, you know it’s what it is. And it occurred to me that Pete always knew that. He always knew that there was a power in the songs. There was a spirit in people singing together, and he proved it over and over again.

And I think that audience that night at Carnegie and all of the shows he’s done throughout his life helped build that conviction in him so that it was even more powerful because not only did he believe it, he could actually see it.

Tavis: Does folk music — we are once again in a time of war. Here just days ago, the president dropping bombs on Syria — does folk music, does music writ large, still have that kind of persuasive, poignant power in it?

Guthrie: It depends on how you identify folk music. For me, folk music is the original social media. That’s the way people used to find out…

Tavis: I take it.

Guthrie: What was going on.

Tavis: I take it, yeah.

Guthrie: And in the old days — I mean, I’m gonna be 70 this year. But when I was a kid, I remember hearing the recordings of people like my dad and others, buddies of his, who had come from these rural areas where folk music was the only news they had.

And they would write songs that might be making fun of the town over the hill saying, you know, we’re not dumb like those guys. And you still see some of that in vestiges of like sports teams or something like that. You know, where you build yourself up by putting somebody else down.

Tavis: A kind of bravado, yeah.

Guthrie: That happened throughout the history of music, but it was local. And then all of a sudden, somewhere in the 30s, we started building up a national music scene and recordings of those kind of songs couldn’t be played because they would make somebody angry over in the next town.

You had to play the kind of songs that didn’t offend anybody. So the songs got dumber and dumber, as it were, and it’s only recently because of the internet and things like that, that you can hear those kinds of songs.

But you wouldn’t necessarily associate it with a guy like me and a guitar. It might be some kids in some city somewhere doing their own kind of music. They’re talking about what’s going on. They’re talking about what’s happening. You don’t associate that with folk music, but I would.

Tavis: But back in the day, people at this level, not the kids on the internet, people at this level were speaking that truth to power. And for that matter, speaking truth to the powerless, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, you run the list. At this level, they were doing that. Do you see artists in this moment at this level who are doing that?

Guthrie: Of course.

Tavis: Yeah.

Guthrie: I mean, they’re always there, but they’re not always popular. You know, there was this sort of glitch in the system that happened during the 60s like a lot of other things. Music was only part of it. Not only did the music speak truth to power, it also talked to each other.

That was the thing. We were talking to other people, but it wasn’t just the music in those days. The guys that did the fashion, the guys that did theater, the guys that did art, the guys that did all — we all knew each other. We were all hanging out with each other.

And now it’s all sort of target marketed so that, you know, there’s music for you if you’re 15 or 16. You got your own channel, man. You got your own radio. You got your own TV. You got your own stores to go. So we don’t have that kind of integration that we had not only in the music scene, but we don’t have it in the world anymore.

It’ll get back there because that’s a normal, human kind of instinctual draw that draws you into people who may be doing a whole different world of art or different world of what you’re wearing or how you look or what you speak like or what language you’re talking. Those people find their way together. Just takes a little while.

Tavis: What do you appreciate most about growing up in the era that you grew up in? We talked about the household you grew up in, the people you got to know because you were in the right household. What do you most appreciate, Arlo, about growing up in the era that you grew up in?

Guthrie: What I was just talking about. There was this worldwide event that took place in the early 60s. I don’t know what it was, by the way, and everybody who says they know what it was, they’re making it up. But I can tell you this. It didn’t come from the top down. It came from the bottom up.

I remember the newspapers and the TVs and the radios all trying to identify, especially the politicians, who are these people and who’s leading them? We didn’t have any leaders. It was a groundswell. So they make up leaders and we all bought it. That one there? That’s a leader, you know.

Well, when you have leaders and everybody accepts that, then it’s easy to change what’s going on. But we didn’t have leaders, so nobody could change anything because even at the Women’s March that they just had in Washington, D.C., they had all these speakers and talkers and organizers.

But most of the people in that crowd didn’t know who they were. Never heard of them before. But those are the people the media goes to and says, “That’s a leader.” It’s their fault there’s always women out there in the street.

And I think that was the one thing I felt personally was the most interesting thing is that it couldn’t be identified. It was just a change in consciousness. Something happened. Something shifted. It changed everybody and it didn’t even change everybody, by the way. And it didn’t even change most people. It changed a critical mass.

Tavis: Just enough, yeah.

Guthrie: Yes. Just enough.

Tavis: Just enough, yeah.

Guthrie: And that’s what I’m looking for today. I see the same thing happening right now. There is not a majority. There is not most. There’s enough and, if everybody who feels that enoughness, is willing to get out there and say, “Me too. I’m in this”, it will change faster than anybody could imagine.

Tavis: Is there a lesson or lessons for that group of enough in this moment to take from the group of enough in your era? Are there lessons that you ought to learn?

Guthrie: I don’t think there’s any lessons you can learn.

Tavis: Okay.

Guthrie: Everybody’s going to reinvent the wheel no matter what you say, no matter what I say. I remember I was walking down the street with Pete when he was 92, 93. That was during the Occupy thing in New York.

Tavis: In Zuccotti Park, yeah.

Guthrie: And Pete wanted to go and it was after a show that we had just done together. I’m looking at him like, :”Pete, are you kidding me? I mean, now’s the time to go out and have a beer.” He said, “No, we’re gonna meet those kids.” I said, “Okay”, whatever Pete wants [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Guthrie: So I’m following him down the street. He’s got these two metal canes and he’s walking 30 blocks. It’s like in November. It’s cold. He’s got this funny little hat on and he gets to — we were meeting them in the middle sort of like Columbus Circle.

So there were a bunch of young kids coming up town and we was going downtown. We met in Columbus Circle. Nobody knew who he was. Nobody recognized him. Nobody had learned anything from him. They were singing songs that they knew like snippets of, a couple of words, and that was it.

And then they’d move on to the next song because nobody knew enough to keep the same song going [laugh]. But there’s Pete and he’s got that banjo and he starts playing. All of a sudden, all these young people that had never heard of him start looking at “Who’s that guy?”

And there was something magnetic. He drew them in. He’d been doing this a long time. He starts singing the songs and he starts giving them the words so that they could follow him along.

All of a sudden, there’s a spirit thing going on. It’s a heart thing. You feel like, oh, man, I’m here and something’s happening. That changes you. It changes the chemistry in your brain. It changes your heart. It changes everything.

So I was not even concerned after that whether this particular movement, if you want to call it, was going to succeed or not. That wasn’t the point of it. The point was to change everybody who was there so that they would have some of what you’re asking about, which is this initial experience.

It took us years in the early 60s. Time after time, thing after thing, place after place, to get that spirit organized to where you knew how you fit in and you knew that you counted. That took a long time, and it’s already started. It started not just with those folks, but other people in different places.

If I would have imagined at some point that all I am is toast and done when I’m outta here, why bother? But there’s something else going on and I’m not a theologian, so I don’t know what it is. I don’t even care. It’s not my interest. My sense is just to acknowledge it.

If it comes to you to figure out, great, yippee. And if it doesn’t, you don’t belong there anyhow. So there are a lot of people trying to get something. There are a lot of people trying to understand. A lot of people trying to believe or trying to have faith or trying to — you don’t need to try anything. It’s all there.

All you have to do is not be closed to it if it should ever come upon you like those moments that we were just talking about with Pete. It comes upon. It finds its way into your life somehow through somebody, a circumstance you couldn’t predict. It comes, and that’s all you need to know.

Tavis: And let yourself be a vessel. That’s it.

Guthrie: Yeah, that’s it.

Tavis: I love this guy [laugh]. It’s been 50 years since “Alice’s Restaurant” was first performed at Newport Folk Festival, and there’s a special version of it out now on the 50th anniversary of this great classic.

Since you happened to bring your instrument with you, would you be kind enough, sir, to play us out with something? I’m gonna say goodnight to the audience and you do your thing. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith, and here’s my man, Arlo Guthrie.


Guthrie: All right, buddy.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 7, 2017 at 1:15 am