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Arlo Guthrie's M.O.

Arlo Guthrie shows us that folk music is always relevant.
 Publicity photo of Arlo Guthrie.

Publicity photo of Arlo Guthrie.

By Dave Thompson

We’re discussingArlo Guthrie’s musical archive, and the possibility of him ever seeing his life bundled up in a luxurious, career-spanning box set. And the answer looks like “no.”

“There’s probably only gonna be one box” he says, “and I’ll be in it.

“I hope they don’t stick me in a vault, either.” He is adamant. “The songs that remain unreleased are that way for very good reasons. They suck.”

Seasoned Guthrie watchers would probably disagree on that score. A handful for archival releases have squeaked out over the years, most notably the “Rehashed 4:20 Sampler,” packing three lengthy (20-minute) musical monologues; and the live “Tales from ’69.” Circulating, too, are the bulk of his 1969 Woodstock performance, and a considerably more intimate recording from Gerde’s Folk City in New York from 1966. We can hear Guthrie performing for sundry radio broadcasts throughout the late 1960s, and even call up a three-hour compilation featuring no less than 10 different versions of “Alice’s Restaurant,” ranging in time from 1966 to 2007. Each one radically different to the other.

And all of them — all of these recordings — capturing the sheer comic genius that, allied with his equally pronounced musical brilliance, long ago established him among the most entertaining live acts of his, and any other, generation.

Evidence of all that is still apparent today, as Guthrie follows up his last U.S. tour, commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant,” with another, this time focussing on the albums that followed Alice into being: “Arlo” (1968), “Running Down The Road” (1969 — it also titles the tour itself), “Washington County” (1970) and “Hobo’s Lullaby” (1972). Scheduled to stretch into the summer, it’s already pulled in a small scrapbook’s worth of great reviews, while Guthrie himself couldn’t be happier.

“It’s always fun getting some old friends together and hitting the road. This time is no different in that sense. The band is hot, the songs are good, and the folks are coming. So far, so good.”

It was not, he admits, easy to decide how to follow the Alice tour, but in the end, the mood of the times answered the question for him. Guthrie has never shied away from discussing the political climate, with his tendency to cloak his observations in humor only sharpening their impact — if you have some time on your hands, head on over to YouTube for a 10-year-old monologue on how he built up his original audience. It’s called “Arlo Guthrie Thanks the Narcs.”Today, those thanks go out to an even wider range of people.

The modern era is not, after all, “the first surveillance-era rodeo I’ve been through.” But, he continues, “although I’ve been tracked by authorities in the past for my convictions regarding Vietnam and other issues, it feels like today the government is not actually interested in what I think or who I talk to, but that other bigger institutions are pulling the government strings and using it for their own purposes.

“Maybe that’s just paranoid thinking. But, a lot of people have the feeling that something’s not right, and we’re losing our sense of privacy. I wouldn’t mind losing it for something worthwhile, but I sure as hell don’t want to be investigated so that some outfit can send me more crap in order to sell me something I don’t want or need.”

As for the Running Down the Road tour itself, “I asked myself ‘how are you going to follow up a mostly sold out show like the Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour, and I came up with what I thought would be songs that went deeper, more favorable to a time when the country is so divided on everything.

“After all, I have people coming to the shows from every side of every issue, and the idea is that we can get through this like we’ve gotten through other interesting times. Songs like Bob Dylan’s ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘When the Ship Comes In’ are songs that were on the set list over 30 years ago, and they still ring true. There’s [also] a few new songs of mine like ‘Ride’ [which he describes as “a better motorcycle song” which sounds mighty sacrilegious until you hear it] and ‘In Times Like These’ — songs that set the right frame of mind to keep pushing for things to get better.”

To which can be added “Front Pages,” “Wake Up Dead,” “Popular Demand,” “Coming into LA,” “When a Soldier Makes It Home,” “If You Would Just Drop By” and, of course, “City of New Orleans” — probably his best-known performance post-Alice’s Restaurant; even as it spotlighted a very different Arlo to the one we’d known before.

After four largely self-composed LPs, he turned almost the entire “Hobo’s Lullaby” album over to other composers: contemporaries like Steve Goodman and Hoyt Axton, alongside the more predictable Dylan, Woody, Jimmie Davis and Goebel Reeves.

Goldmine wondered what was the inspiration behind that album?

Unfortunately, Guthrie couldn’t recall. “Oh geez...That’s way too long ago for me to remember — Like over 40 years ago.”

Which is fair enough.

His reliance on his own pen, and those of Dylan and company, do of course raise an interesting question — albeit one that Judy Collins mused a couple of issues of Goldmine ago. Wherever you search for Guthrie’s albums, the chances are that they’ll be nestling in the folk section — filed, of course, alongside his father’s.

So is a folk singer someone who sings folk (as in traditional) songs? Or is it someone who writes in what we might call the folk milieu, addressing contemporary topics and current affairs?

Guthrie, of course, falls between the two poles, and deliberately so. Hence his not-infrequent dips into his father’s songbook; hence his own sharp eye for those modern iniquities that are as deserving of comment today as those that inspired his idol, Dylan. And hence, even, his occasional reaching into the traditional realm — that magical version of the traditional “The Gypsy Laddie,” for example, that highlighted 1973’s “Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.” But which, again, still feels current today.

“I always seemed to love a good tale. And I also loved my fathers’ ability to take an old song and rewrite it to update original. ‘Seven Little Gypsies’ was the song he used for his rewrite called ‘Gypsy Davy’ and it’s not all that different from the original song. However, in the original ballad, the un-named hero gets hung along with his friends for daring to seduce the lady in the lord’s home. In my father’s version, the lord becomes the ‘boss’ and the hero ends up with the girl. Times change.”

And then, a remark that isn’t simply stunning in its simplicity. It should also be worn as a T-shirt. “I always thought of folk music as being the original social media. In that sense, it’s still functioning that way — and so am I.”

Which, in a perfect world, would be the end of the interview. How can you follow that?

But Goldmine, looking back over a career that has had more than its share of swings and roundabouts before winding up on today’s glorious plateau, cannot resist one final question: if you could give your mid-’60s self one piece of advice, what would it be — and do you think you’d have listened?

“I’d probably advise my younger (self) to find true love and hold on tight. I think I’ve had this conversation with myself before, so I took my own advice.”