For more than 50 years, generations of Americans have counted on the Guthrie family to set the standards on songs of protest against social injustices. The family’s call to social activism has long been a beacon of hope for millions of people across the globe. Read on and hear Arlo articulate about his father, Woody, Bob Dylan, Alice’s Restaurant, and the Occupy Movement. I have long thought, “This Land Is Your Land” should be our national anthem: if you agree, call your congressman today!
Noise: You will be celebrating the 100th birthday of your Dad at the two- day Green River Festival in July. Can you tell me what’s planned?
Arlo: I’m planning on getting my family together, all the kids and grandkids, and singing a whole lot of songs that were written by my father, Woody Guthrie. In addition, I think we’ll do some songs that were written by us.
Noise: You and Jackie’s four children and your seven grandchildren join you onstage singing. Did you play with your dad much growing up?
Arlo: I played with my dad around the house or out in the backyard. I was a kid banging on guitars or anything I could get my hands on. I’ve never performed with him onstage.
Noise: Many of the songs you perform onstage with your family are “new” Woody Guthrie lyrics with music created by today’s singer/songwriters including Woody’s descendants. What a creative idea! How do you decide on who does what and on the authenticity and compatibility of each new part?
Arlo: There’s no logic to it except that at the end of the day we’d like to come up with an evening that was worth the price of admission. Usually, we weave together songs and tell tales that seem like they go together—not simply a set list of songs in a particular order. I like doing shows that are more like a play where the songs put together remind you of things you already knew.
Noise: Looking back, what do you think of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s two albums in 1998 and 2001, including “Mermaid Avenue” with new music added to Woody’s lyrics?
Arlo: I really enjoyed the first record. There was so much really original stuff on there. The second volume was okay but I liked the first better.
Noise: Do you still have your Dad’s guitar that says “This guitar kills fascists” on the neck?
Arlo: My father didn’t have one guitar. He went thru them and often just gave them away when he didn’t want to carry them around. He wrote the same words on all the guitars he played during the second World War. There are a few out there but none of them from that era.
Noise: What do you think of the Occupy Movement in general and the Occupy Boston Movement specifically?
Arlo: There are people who actually believe government is best when it serves those with the most. I’m not one of them, and I’ve spent my life devoted to the idea that government is best when it serves everyone equally. These days there are people left, right, and center who rightly have the feeling that government, the folks we elect locally, state-wide, and on the national level are not working for the many as much as for a few, well-funded individuals and corporations who don’t understand that their greed is destroying the nation and our way of life. The corruption of both political parties and all three branches of government is self-evident to anyone who can see. There are folks who wish to restore justice and balance to our system, and they are occupying the places where they feel they can make their commitment known. I’m with them.
Noise: What do you remember about being babysat by Bob Dylan?
Arlo: Bob Dylan took me to the Newport Folk Festival during the early ’60s because my mom wouldn’t let me go on my own. I was too young. He wasn’t a babysitter so much as a ticket out of the house.
Noise: By the end of 2010 you had performed over 40 concerts with 27 different symphony orchestras. You’ve played at Boston’s Symphony Hall and also at the July 4th Hatch Shell concert. What’s Keith Lockhart like? Is he a folkie at heart? And how is performing your songs with an orchestra different for you than your solo acoustic versions?
Arlo: Keith Lockhart is so much fun to work with. He is a down to earth guy whose talent doesn’t get in the way of being a good guy. I love working with him. I sing my songs any way I can, it’s always different depending on who else is on stage.
Noise: There are a lot of other non-music activities you are involved with including acting on ABC series Byrds of Paradise and USA series Renegade. You’ve written The Rolling Blunder Revue since 1986, you’ve authored an award-winning children’s book Mooses Come Walking, and on www.arlo.net you actively keep in touch with fans with your frequent posts and chat room. Am I forgetting anything? You are always touring too. Where do you find the time, and are you a very organized individual too?
Arlo: I’ve done more stuff than I can remember. For someone who doesn’t believe in being organized, I’ve done pretty well.
Noise: You play six- and 12-string guitar, piano, harmonica, and a dozen other instruments. What are some of the other instruments you play, and do you write most of your songs on guitar or does it vary?
Arlo: I’ll write whatever comes from wherever it comes from. There’s no particular M.O.
Noise: You are a natural-born storyteller. Do you get this characteristic from your dad? How are you similar and different from your dad in other personality traits?
Arlo: Well, lemme tell you about that…
Noise: In 1967 you premiered “Alice’s Restaurant” at The Newport Folk Festival and it was deemed too long for radio (18 min. 34 sec.). Then in 1969, in the Woodstock movie, “Coming Into Los Angeles” was banned from many radio stations. Now that commercial radio is experiencing dramatic decreases in their audiences because of the Internet, would you care to comment on the rise and fall of commercial radio, and is there a moral to the story here too?
Arlo: I never wrote or performed with the idea of being on the top 40 charts. I just like playing music—my stuff, old songs, other people’s new stuff……I’ve successfully escaped being a part of the entertainment industry. And I’ve never felt better in my life. I don’t actually give much thought to commercial radio, or TV, or magazines etc. I just keep being myself because that’s all I know.
Noise: Beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Lord Buckley influenced you. What do you think their legacies are today, and do you think there are any contemporary artists who share their commitment to social consciousness?
Arlo: I love the story-tellers. I love crazy, odd, and freaky people who don’t bore me with pretending to be normal. Their lives reinforce the idea that you do not have to conform to some dumbed-down standard to satisfy your self-worth. Whoever you are, there’s only one you. Why not make the best of it?
Noise: In the past four decades you’ve toured throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been recognized?
Arlo: I’m not recognizable to most people anywhere these days. Most people who know my name think I died years ago. While that may be true, I’m still laughing about it.
Noise: Any advice to young musicians trying to get their music heard in today’s tough times?
Arlo: Ponder this: Everyone knows “On Top of Spaghetti.” Did anyone ever try to get that heard? Trying to become well-known is generally self-defeating because by the time you are known, you will only be known for having tried to become known. Better to spend your time being yourself as you are, and if you become well-known you may have something of value to share with the rest of us.