An afternoon with Arlo
By Naughty Mickie
Photos from various sources and courtesy www.arlo.net
It was story in itself how my interview with one of the world's most influential musicians, Arlo Guthrie, came about. The opportunity was originally offered to a fellow journalist of mine during my day job at Southern California newspaper. He didn't know who Guthrie was and therefore didn't realize his importance to music, so he turned the offer down. His loss proved to be my gain; I was more than honored to speak with this legend and it is my pleasure to share it with you.
Guthrie was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, and is the son of famed musician Woody Guthrie and dancer Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, who was a member of the Martha Graham Company. He grew up surrounded by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and other noted artists and made his mark with the hit "Alice's Restaurant." He continues to tour, with his now-adult children, to this day. It is fairly easy to find out just about anything you'd like on Guthrie and his family thanks to the Internet, but at most of the sites, you can't learn what's in his heart nor can you hear how it sounds as he tells it. Read on and discover why Guthrie's ideals continue to be important today.
"I got my first guitar when I was five," Guthrie begins. "It was my fifth birthday present and I still have it. It's a Gibson guitar. My dad, on my fifth birthday, he told my mom that he was going to go out and get me a birthday present and he said he was going to get a guitar or something. And she said, 'Oh, that's great.'
"He went out and bought a guitar, it was probably about 70 to 80 bucks, which in those days and in our time, it was a fortune. He'd bought not just one, but he bought one for the neighbor kid too," Guthrie goes on. "Her birthday was also the same week. When he got home with these two guitars, my mom screamed, I mean she just flew off the handle and said, 'How could you spend that kind of money on a kid?' He said, 'Well, if you get them a cheap guitar, they'll play it for a couple of days or a week and they'll just give it up or won't do anything. But if you give them a real nice one, then the only thing that stops them from playing it is if they decide not to do it. They'll play it, if they want to play it and they'll keep playing it for the rest of their life.' And the truth is, I heard from my neighbor kid a few years ago, she's still playing too. So my dad was absolutely right. He didn't want to give toys. It didn't have to be the equivalent of some Stradivarius, but it was a decent little guitar. The proof is we still got 'em, both of us.''
Guthrie inherited his father's love of music, what about his mother's passion for dance?
"I became a musician so I didn't have to dance," Guthrie laughs. "The only people that weren't dancing at the schools I was going to were the people that were playing the music. You were either playing the music or you were dancing, so I headed right for the music, I did not want to be a dancer.
"In those days it was a little different," continues Guthrie. "I was young kid, the last thing I wanted to do. my mom taught, she wasn't just a dancer, she had a dancing school. She had hundreds of little girls that came to the school every day and the last thing I wanted to do was hang around with a bunch of little girls in leotards. I wanted to be out playing football.''
I ask Guthrie if he attended college.
"I did briefly," Guthrie replies. "I went for about a semester. A great little college out in Billings, Montana, called Rocky Mountain College. I got a diploma too, years later. They said, 'You didn't finish at the time, but you did the work.'
"I wanted to be a forest ranger, I went for forestry. I didn't like hanging around large crowds of people, so I thought, 'Oh, yeah, I'll sit in the fire tower and wait for fires.' By myself, alone in the woods which is what I'd still rather do, but so much for karma, huh? Now I spend my time in front of large crowds,'' chuckles Guthrie.
He admits that he has always been able to support himself through music,
"Aside from having jobs as a little kid. I had a paper route and stuff like that, but no, I never had any real work,'' Guthrie admits.
What are his hobbies?
"Playin','' Guthrie laughs. "There's two kinds of music, there's performance music and professional stuff and then there's hanging around playing. When I'm not doing it as a profession, my hobby's doing it with my friends.''
Guthrie was obviously turned on to music by his parents, but he has never pushed it on his children, all of which are now involved in music-- one daughter helps with his tour schedule, the other is a musician in her own right and his son is in a band.
"I didn't encourage them, as a matter of fact, I tried to discourage them," states Guthrie about his children and music. "Not by actively saying don't this or don't do that, but I didn't get them guitars when they were 10 or things like that. Eventually they all wanted to know how to play the piano and they all wanted to know some chords on the guitar. I think it was mostly the result of their friends seeing so many instruments around the house. It was just so different than other people's houses. Their friends would come over and say, 'Oh, can you play this stuff?' And my kids would say, 'I dunno know.' Eventually they decided they should learn a couple of chords. It all started when they were little. My son, Abe, had a band in sixth grade, they're still together, Xavier. Last year they opened the shows for us, but not this year.''
The choice for music and his own kids doesn't affect the impact Guthrie feels it has on children overall.
"I can't think of anything that's more important. I think kids have to do a lot of physical stuff and they have to do a lot of art stuff. This is the richest country in the world and you would think that those would be priorities in the schools and they're not any more," Guthrie says strongly. "In the school systems, a lot of kids have to pay for all that stuff separately on their own now, I just hate that. These things should be a part of every kid's diet growing up because first of all music and sports are universal languages. You don't have to speak the other guy's language, but you can still play sports and you can still play music with them. And if anything has been learned from 9/11, it's been learned that we have to play and talk with each other. These are the kinds of developmental tools that kids should be encouraged to have and I think school systems should be providing for every kid here in the U.S.''
Guthrie and I discuss various programs for music and children, such as those sponsored by NAMM and the Mockingbird Foundation.
"Every chance we have to help out in that way, we do. We just contributed a song to the Mockingbird Foundation, which is the Phish organization that donates musical instruments and stuff to school systems all over the U.S. It's so important," says Guthrie. "As much as we love doing it, it's a shame that we have to. These are things that used to be on the curriculum of every school in the U.S. back 30, 40 years ago and they need to be put back there. If it's one less airplane we would have to build to do it, so what?
"Look at the world we're living in," Guthrie goes on. "Kids don't have the skills that are needed. How are you going to learn to listen to somebody else? There's no better way than music, to sit around with a group of kids and look at their faces as they're listening to each other so they know what to do. How do you learn to play with each other and not get pissed off every time something goes wrong? There's nothing better than watching a bunch of kids play baseball or football or something like that.''
I ask Guthrie what he thinks of today's music scene.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of interest by all kinds of people in making music, more than ever before," Guthrie replies. "There's two different worlds of music. There's the industrial variety, which is the kind of music that is manufactured for the purpose of creating income for lots of corporate types. And then, there's music that people just play for themselves. And they're both doing very well.''
Do you feel that the Internet has influenced this trend?
"Yeah, sure," acknowledges Guthrie. "But it happened long before the Internet was popular. The festivals, bluegrass and blues, jazz and folk festivals, these things are booming all over the world. And it's been doing so longer than the Internet's been around. The Internet makes it possible for people to exchange music, their music, on CDs, with other people around the world and so no one really relies on the industry for that much any more, which I think is fine, that's terrific.''
I have noticed that folk music and other "root" genres are once again gaining popularity, so I ask Guthrie for his opinion.
"It's a little bit like describing an ocean when you describe these things." Guthrie explains, "You see a set of waves and everybody says, 'Oh, that's how it is,' these kind of things are cyclical, but the interest in music has proven it. People get lost in discussing only the surface, I guess is what I'm saying. On the superficial side of things here maybe there's a recurring interest in this or that, that changes, but to note that and not be aware of the vast ocean of stuff that's permanently there, I think is a mistake and there's a vast ocean of permanent interest in people making their own music that has been here since the pioneers first came over with their banjos and fiddles and mandolins and stuff from the Old World. That's always been here, it's never gone anywhere.
"You've got to remember that the radio's only 100 years old," continues Guthrie. "This kind of interest in industrial music -- I'm trying to think of the right word for it, but I've only had one cup of coffee -- commercial music is a very new thing. In the history of man singing and playing their own songs is thousands of years old, it's only in the last hundred years that we have been at this dimension of radios and CDs. And the technology is a very small part of the big picture to me because I'm a part of the traditional sources of music also. I've made my records and I've participated in that, but it's clearly a very small part of the world of music. It doesn't really exist.
"When you go to folk festivals, or any festivals, jazz festivals, pop festivals, there's a little buzz off to the side where they sell records or CDs, but where the people are, they're just playing the music. That's what's going on most of the time." Guthrie says, "We believe when we're talking to the newspapers or the radio or the TV that the record industry is bigger than it really is. It's a very small part of the very big music world. So whether it's going this way or people are interested in that stuff, these are just the little surface effects of something that's so deep and so rich that it's been going on for so long. Right now it's thriving, people all over the world are making music. We get requests to send strings to third world countries where people make their own instruments. The only thing that's hard for them to make is strings. Everywhere, it doesn't matter whether they're industrial or third world countries, people are making music and they have been doing it for thousands of years and whether the big companies are involved or not is almost a moot point. It's irrelevant to the big world of music out there.''
Guthrie tells me how he writes, "I don't write as much as I used to, I used to write all the time. Actually, I don't sit down and write, I play more. I just sit around and make up stuff and I don't bother to write it down or get the tape recorder, I just play it and let it go. It's sorta like fishing without bringing the fish home. It's pleasurable, it's less possessive.''
Speaking with Guthrie, you soon feel like you're talking with an old friend. I prod him to tell me how he feels about being considered a music legend.
"Nobody's a hero in their own family,'' Guthrie laughs. "I can tell you that. No one's a legend in their own hometown, I can guarantee you that. Those things are fun and they might get you in a restaurant without a reservation, but aside from that, it doesn't really have much value.
"Anybody that's been around long enough doing the same thing has probably influenced somebody to some extent. I notice that." Guthrie goes back to his past, "When I first started out, I was the youngest of the new singer-songwriter types, Bob Dylan and Phil Oaks and Joan Baez and all of these guys were not quite a decade older than me, but somewhere in there. When I first went to the Newport Folk Festival as a child, I remember I was like 13 or something like that and I had to go with an adult because I couldn't go on my own and my mom sent me off with Bob Dylan saying, 'Take care of my kid.'
"I was the kid of that group and now I still am to some extent, however, there are so many more young people whose names I don't even know. I see them and I hear some of the music," Guthrie goes on. "There is like a flock of them that is so big and they're kids, there are some 12-year-old guitar players that are just wonderful players and you go, 'How can somebody that young play that well?' None of us when we were that young could play that well.
Guthrie answers himself, "What's happened is that people have learned from each succeeding generation and the quality of music that is coming on line today is just so good it's just breathtaking. not just the music, the instruments themselves. Thirty, forty years ago when you went to buy a guitar, you had to be careful because some guitars brand new were unplayable. They don't exist today. You can get a pretty cheap guitar and it's good. This is the golden age of instruments right now. There's never been a time when so many guitar makers, banjo players and people that make the instruments and play them. It's a fabulous time for that.''
Once again, Guthrie returns to the discussion of the importance of music, not just for children, but for everyone.
"It's really important," states Guthrie. "The next time you see a movie, try to imagine it without the music. Music is the background, it's the soundtrack of your life. And when important events happen in your life, whatever's playing on the radio, whatever you hear, becomes a marker, like a mile marker. Every time you pass it by, it reminds you of whatever was going on, whether you were falling in love or breaking up, whatever your story was, the music, you can sort of hang your hat on that part of your life and it stays there forever.''
I query if Guthrie has any goals for the future.
"I don't have any goals. I gave up goals," says Guthrie. "I plan to have some shows that we're doing and obviously those have to be made in advance before we're going to go play them and aside from that, I don't have any plans at all.''
That sounds nice I remark.
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying,'' Guthrie agrees.
Guthrie has traveled the world, settling in the eastern United States.
"I live in western Massachusetts. I've been there over 30 years.''
It's cold there, I respond, and tell him that I lived in Syracuse, New York for a while.
"We get the snow off the lake, not quite as much as Syracuse," he says. "But we get whatever's left, it goes to Albany and then it comes to us.''
We compare California, where I live now, versus the East Coast.
"It's a different world. Where we are right now, we're high enough up so we get all that snow and it's wonderful because it's not like snow in the big cities, it's like snow in the country. It's clean, it doesn't turn yucky, it's nice and it's fun to play in. The water's still drinkable out of the streams.'' Guthrie especially loves the changing seasons, "There's nothing like fall in New England.''
Is there anything else you'd like to talk about I ask. "Whatever you want," Guthrie replies amiably.
Share with me some of your musical wisdom, I venture.
"I knew I was going to be playing music all my life. I never dreamed that I would do it professionally, but I knew that I would be sitting around with my friends," says Guthrie. " I remember the day our first record came out and there was all this money coming at us, which I spent years ago. It was a great thing. I said, 'You mean I can have fun and make money too?' It was unbelievable. So I recommend it to everybody who can possibly pull it off, except to know that the money goes quickly, but the memories stay forever. There are a lot of times I would have gladly traded some of the money for some more of the memories.
"It's true, that's just how it is. The more money you have, the more you spend. You're in the same boat no matter what. But all of the shows that we've played with all of our friends, even musicians who are no longer here, those are etched in your brain forever and obviously they are in the hearts of a lot of people everywhere, you can't buy that. There's just moments when something clicks, sometimes it's in the studio, sometimes it's on the stage, sometimes it's on your back porch." Guthrie pauses as if reflecting on his life, "And there are moments that are like watching the sun set or something like that, there's just no words to describe it, which is why people play it in music.''
Discover more about this living legend at www.arlo.net.
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