A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Arlo Guthrie
Index name: Guthrie, Arlo
Pronunciation: AR-lo GUHTH-ree
Full name: Arlo Davy Guthrie
Musical identity: Folk singer and songwriter
Born: July 10, 1947; Coney Island, New York
Influence: Guthrie, as the son of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie and as a performer of his own often whimsically political compositions, came to embody and perpetuate the myth of the troubadour as an archetypal mystic gadfly. Although identified with the counterculture of the 1960s, Guthrie composed, recorded, and performed into the twenty-first century, increasingly using his popularity as a musician to attract attention to his work on behalf of various charitable social causes.
The Life: Arlo Davy Guthrie (AR-lo DAY-vee GUHTH-ree) was born into a uniquely musical family. His mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, was a former professional dancer with the Martha Graham Company and taught dance throughout his childhood. His father, Woody Guthrie, was America’s most prolific and best-known folk-protest singer and the composer of innumerable songs, including “This Land Is Your Land.”
Guthrie made his most indelible mark in 1967 with “Alice’s Restaurant‘s Massacree,” an eighteen-minute shaggy-dog story loosely patterned after his father’s talking-blues style. An instant counterculture favorite, the real-life events described in the song served as the basis for the 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant, in which Guthrie starred as himself. Although he continued to record major-label albums through 1981, his only other radio hit was his 1972 recording of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”
Since 1991 Guthrie has occupied himself increasingly with the Guthrie Center, a non-profit “interfaith church foundation” dedicated to various forms of social activism, such as caring for AIDS patients and raising awareness about Huntington’s Disease, the degenerative disorder from which his father died. A practicing Catholic during much of the 1970s, Guthrie eventually became a follower of the Kali Yatha Yoga master Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati.
Given his status as the eldest son of Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie could have carved out a comfortable musical niche for himself simply by covering his father’s songs or by composing in his father’s well-known folk-protest style. Instead, from his instantly recognizable nasal voice and his charmingly quirky sense of humor to his ear for catchy melodies and his intimate familiarity with folk songs from many traditions, he established himself from the outset as a singer-songwriter in his own right. Not that he had nothing in common with his father. Besides covering Woody’s “Oklahoma Hills” on Running Down the Road, “1913 Massacre” on Hobo’s Lullaby, and “Ramblin’ Round” on Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, Guthrie also wrote protest songs of his own that, if similar in spirit to his father’s Dust Bowl classics, were clearly a response to the specific socio-political crises of the 1960s and 1970s.
Alice's Restaurant. With “Alice’s Restaurant’s Massacree” comprising all of Side One, this 1967 album made Guthrie an instant counter-cultural celebrity. Its length aside, what distinguished Guthrie’s eighteen-minute story-song from the rest of the anti-war-music pack was his comic timing, a quality generally lacking in the protest music of any era.
The Best of Arlo Guthrie. Released ten years after Guthrie’s debut, this compilation suffered from the restrictions of the twelve-inch vinyl LP. That “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” would make the cut was obvious, as was the inclusion of “The Motorcycle Song” (in its six-minute version) and Guthrie’s 1972 hit “City of New Orleans.” The challenge was to condense the best of the rest of Guthrie’s first eight albums into the remaining twenty minutes. Predictably, the result was spotty, with two songs from Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys and one apiece from Running Down the Road, Washington County, Arlo Guthrie, and Amigo.
Outlasting the Blues. When this album appeared in the fall of 1979, it was frequently discussed in conjunction with Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Van Morrison’s Into the Music, albums that, like this album’s first side, drew on biblical or gospel imagery. The specific reason for Guthrie’s religious focus was that he was on the verge of learning whether he, like his father, would succumb to Huntington’s Disease. (The eventual diagnosis was that he would not.) Understandably, his own mortality was on his mind, and, rather than indulging in morbid self-pity, he composed a suite of songs that served as an examination of his life and its significance and included references to his 1960s status as a protest hero, his Jewish roots, his conversion to Catholicism, and his marriage. Side Two, although less thematically coherent, consisted of songs of equally high quality, making the album one of Guthrie’s strongest.
Power Of Love. Compared to the serious tone of Outlasting the Blues, this 1981 follow-up, Guthrie’s last album for Warner Brothers, struck many as especially lightweight. At least one song, however, the T Bone Burnett-composed title cut, continued Guthrie’s recording of music with Christian themes.
Someday. This was in many ways a typical Arlo Guthrie album, replete with humor, political protest, and catchy melodies. By 1986, however, the Guthrie formula was considered passé, and Warner Brothers refused to release the album, leaving it to Guthrie to release it himself on his own Rising Son label in the early 1990s.
All Over the World. In 1991, ten years after his last Warner Brothers album, Guthrie had finally acquired the rights to enough of his catalogue to assemble this thirteen-song compilation, which, except for its re-inclusion of “City of New Orleans,” made an ideal complement to The Best of Arlo Guthrie.
Since Guthrie emerged as a solo performer in 1967, two phrases have always appeared in discussions of his music: “Woody Guthrie’s son” and “Alice’s Restaurant.” The former has given even the slightest of Guthrie’s recordings an aura of folkloric authenticity, of being connected to the centuries-old troubadour tradition in which Woody Guthrie himself was a link. The latter serves as a reminder of the role that storytelling, wit, and cheering for society’s underdogs has played in Guthrie’s most enduring music.
Whether that music will live on in the repertoires of subsequent folk singers remains to be seen. Even the perennially popular “Alice’s Restaurant” and “The Motorcycle Song” are so autobiographical that it’s difficult to imagine anyone besides Guthrie performing them. But, as long as there are pretensions, there will be songwriters who want to puncture them so effectively that they never re-inflate, inspired by the example of Guthrie’s preference for the satirical slice over the sledgehammer blow.
Guthrie, Arlo. This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book. New York: Amsco, 1969. The words and music to twenty early Guthrie songs, illustrated with photos of Guthrie’s family and memorabilia.
Lee, Laura. Arlo, Alice and Anglicans: The Lives of a New England Church. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2000. A history of the Trinity Church, the setting of “Alice’s Restaurant” and the current home of his interfaith Guthrie Center.
Orteza, Arsenio. “Arlo and Ma,” The Christian Century (May 5, 1993). An examination of Guthrie’s spiritual journey from Catholicism to Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati.
Simon, John. “The Youth Film,” Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967-1970. New York: Delta, 1971. Contains an acute review of the film Alice’s Restaurant.
Unterberger, Richie. Turn, Turn, Turn: The ’60s Folk-Rock Revolution. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002. Traces the role of folk music in the evolution of rock and roll with Guthrie among the interviewed musicians.
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