Outside the folk box
The voice of Americana will be heard loud and clear at the Vilar Center Friday at 7:30 p.m. when Arlo Guthrie and his band take the stage.
Arlo was born with the proverbial guitar in one hand and a harmonica in the other. The son of folk hero Woody Guthrie and professional dancer Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, his childhood was filled with musicians, dancers and artists. It’s no wonder he went on to a musical career of his own, though he was no lamb following meekly in his father’s footsteps. From the time he was 13, playing his first public gig, Arlo always went his own way.
“For me, folk music was never a kind of music,” he said. “It’s how you learn how to play, it’s listening to other people.”
His career took off in 1967, when he played his song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” at the Newport Folk Festival.
“That was a big year for me,” he said. “I got to play “Alice’s Restaurant’ for more than 10 people. And then make a movie about it.”
It also sealed his place in the history books. The song is synonymous with ’60s commitment to social activism and consciousness. But Arlo was just getting started.
“I’m fine with whoever wants to be popular at the time,” said Arlo. “The entertainment part of music is important, but music is a lot bigger than just entertainment. All of the weddings and funerals – all of the parts of our lives that matter most, music plays a part of them. Entertainment is a small part, but it makes a lot of money.”
Though Arlo doesn’t have a problem with pop music, he’s not inclined to listen to it. Raised on the lyrically explosive music of the folk culture, Britney seems a bit lacking in substance.
“I generally find myself listening to my old buddies,” he said, “Randy Newman for example, or whatever Ry Cooder does, I’m always interested in that. My old friend, Gordon Lightfoot, people like that. I don’t think most of the pop stuff of today demands my attention the way stuff did 30 years ago. That stuff is unbeatable.”
He learned early on that he could be just as financially successful as pop stars, as long as he did it all himself. When Warner Records cut him loose from his contract, it was a blessing in disguise. In 1983, he created his own record company.
“I remember one night in the ’70s, they decided disco was the next thing,” he said. “They let all of us go, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrisson and me, we were all let go on the same night. And I think it was a question of marketing. These were my friends. The president of Warner at the time was a buddy of mine. But they didn’t know how to sell us.”
And so he sold himself, and has never looked back. Being under the radar doesn’t mean you have to be less profitable, he explained. It does mean being more involved.
Arlo’s kids are part of his business, now. His son, Abe Guthrie, and his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, will be sharing the stage with him. And as always, the spirit of his father will be there, too.
Though Woody is an American icon, to Arlo he was simply “dad.”
“I get to appreciate the perspective that people have about him,” he said. “But he was my father. My memories of him are personal, but they’re not a general category of knowing.”
Arlo created “32,” a compilation of Woody’s songs, with special guests The Dillards. He’s also involved in the Guthrie Center, named for his parents, an interfaith church foundation dedicated to providing services on a national and international level. Their programs run the gamut from baking cookies for hungry folks to HIV/AIDS services to providing a quiet space to sit and meditate.
He’s pleased to return to Colorado, as he’s got an affection for “the hills and mountain living.”
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.